Monday, December 21, 2009


“Am I too late for breakfast?”

“Nah, you’re fine.  Actually, I think you’re just too late, period!”  He has two eggs cracked and scrambled in a bowl by the time he says this.  “Nah, I’m just tranna be a smart-ass!” he adds.  His wagon is on a desolate stretch of 8th Street between Vine and Spring Garden, with no one for custom or company but Teamsters--striking the Red Cross--and poor saps emerging from traffic court.  He is ready to talk.

“I think the whole god-damn world is too late for somethin’.  The Jews say Jesus ain’t God, the Muslims say the Jews ain’t the chosen people, the Buddhists say it’s all bullshit.  Christmas is comin’. You heard about the banks?  Payin’ back all that bail-out money so they can give themselves their bonuses.  It’s all about the money; the whole world is all about the money.”

By this time I had my eggs and cheese on a roll, and as I ate, I realized that this culinary philosopher had pretty succinctly described a phenomenon that the Vedas call maya-- a word that is usually translated as “illusion,” but which more broadly denotes the fundamentally busted condition of a world that does not perform as advertised, and all the contradictions and perplexities it gives rise to. 

Ecclesiastes, whose near-pagan direness makes it arguably the edgiest book of the Hebrew Bible, (it concludes with an editorial insertion advising the reader to “go no further than this,”) captures this sense of futility:

Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher; everything is vanity!  All the rivers flow into the sea, but the sea is never filled; the sun rises, and sets, and hastens to the place where it rises.  What does a man gain by all the labor at which he toils under the sun? All is vanity and chasing after wind.[i]

Christmas both mutes and heightens this impression that something under the sun is ferhoodled.  On the one hand, people are often more civil and decent to each other.  On the other, anything painful or ugly stands out more glaringly against the festive background, even taking on a tint of moral injustice.  If people die in June, it’s sad; if they die in late December, it’s “a shame.” 

One especially wants the season to be magical for children, and this desire for things to be a certain way intensifies the disappointment when the world just goes on being itself. In Betty Smith’s novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Francie and Neely Nolan go at midnight on Christmas Eve to a neighborhood tree vendor to take advantage of the local custom of throwing unsold trees at people; whoever is not knocked down may take the tree home for free.  When the vendor sees the two kids, eight and ten years old, with “starveling hollows” in their cheeks but their chins still “baby round,” he undergoes “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,” he rationalized, “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.
 Ultimately, the spirit of maya trumps the spirit of Christmas.

“Oh, what the hell!  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!”
In spite of the rottenness, or maybe because of it, I still cling to the Christmas season--can still smell, on a good day, the incense from the Ghost’s benedictory torch.  And whatever else I may have failed in as a Dad, I am proud of how my children love Christmas:  as a whole month-long global experience of carol singing and Christmas-book reading and cookie-baking and Advent-wreath lighting.  Sophie sat on the couch this morning, singing “The Twelve Days of Christmas” to herself while looking at the pictures of each day in a book.

I can still vividly see my two-year-old firstborn opening a gift from my Dad and flapping her little arms in excitement when she saw the Fisher-Price toy nativity scene in the box.  “KWAYSH!” she crowed, her face beaming.  They still play make-believe games together with the figures, improvising little midrashes on the Holy Family’s adventures.  (The puppy chewed up a sheep this year; in fact, one of the sheep in my parents’ crèche has a missing leg for the same reason; we had to lean it against the side of the stable throughout my childhood.) More than once I have come downstairs and seen Clare with her chin on her hands, staring at the traditional crèche my parents gave me when I left home.  It brings me up short; I stand before me as a living child.[ii]

When we are children, we can enter the story with abandon, but as
maya does its number on us over the years, our inner vision is clouded and we lose sight of the star.  We can no longer find Jesus in the manger, so we stop looking for Him in the office, the street, our homes.   The baptismal vow to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself” fades from our intention, and eventually even from our awareness.  We become tourists in our own faith.

As it turns out, the Christmas story, in its historical detail, may be largely spurious.  So what, then, is the point of telling it?  Does it matter that Jesus was almost certainly not born in Bethlehem, but rather in the backwater hill-town of Nazareth where he grew up?  That by his time, peoples’ understanding of prophecy had devolved from the speaking of God’s word to an erring world to soothsaying and fortune-telling, and that the later Gospel writers felt the need to place His birth where Isaiah seemed to have “foretold”?   The writer of the earliest Gospel—Mark’s—didn’t even think the circumstances of Jesus’ birth worth recording. 

And it won’t do to use the story as a means of obviating the pain of human life.  By all means, have yourself a merry little Christmas, let your heart be bright—but your troubles aren’t going anywhere.  So why keep repeating the same incantation against the darkness if the darkness just keeps coming back?

In the Prologue to the Gospel of John, the verse that is usually translated “The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us,” actually says, in the literal Greek, “pitched his tent among us.”  Fell in nondescriptly with the rest of us nomads, and went native. Jesus said of himself that he had “no place to lay his head”—which seems fitting for someone born in a truck stop.  And if we are all passersby in life, aren’t we all just in temporary shelter here?

So are we supposed to be homeless? Or are we rather meant to live as though we were? As though the world were not our gated community, but a cosmic KOA that we were just passing through?

 “Be passersby,” Jesus told his disciples in the Gospel of Thomas.  And by that I don’t think he meant to be aloof—the Good Samaritan was a passerby—but rather to live as though we weren’t from around here.  Pitch your tent, but be ready to strike it.  And though in his sojourn he was deeply involved—“he went about doing good, healing all who were oppressed by the devil”—yet he was also unattached, “in this world but not of it.”  And though he was a sojourner here, he didn’t have a return ticket in his pocket, nor did he move through a Potemkin village of a world. He ate with prostitutes, collaborators and other assorted sinners.  He laid his hands on lepers. He wasn’t a tourist. In Jesus, God kept it real.

How does one keep it real as a passerby?  How does one move through life, not as a tourist, but as a traveler?  Not staying in the expat places where everything is comfortable and familiar, but plunging in with both feet?  Maybe that is what Jesus came to show us; maybe that’s what His birth narrative means.  How would we treat each other if we made no claims on life, yet still entered fully into the thick of it?

Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist.  Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him…When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you?  You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.  For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.[iii]
In Jesus, God plunged into the maya with both feet--tied a towel around his waist and got down here amongst us in this confounding, baffling human life. 

Which might be why he loved children.  Little kids are travelers. They haven’t yet found their place in the world, yet still manage to throw themselves recklessly into it.  (At least mine do.) Their disappointments, though keenly felt and vigorously protested, do not take the form of moral outrage at a legitimate claim on life denied.  And their capacity for joy is oceanic. 

Our ancestors were travelers—strangers and sojourners on earth.  I think of this every year at this time as I sing my favorite Yuletide songs—especially the secular ones, which are more honest, and therefore more revealing.  Here’s part of an old English wassailing song:

Now, Master and Mistress, we know you will give
Unto our jolly wassail as long as we live;
And if we do live to another new year,
We will call in again for to see who is here. 

Did you catch that?  The people who sang that song did not take it for granted that they would be here in a year’s time.  Would not have been outraged to learn they would not, nor assume that anything was therefore wrong or amiss.  The life they had was a gift, and the life they lost was part of the order of things. 

For the order of things is gigantic, and though we are bound to work and struggle and do all we can to relieve the suffering of our fellow creatures, we can be under no illusion that we will ever be done—that Pandora can put it all back into the box.  This is the day that the Lord has made; work while you have the light, and rejoice in it, because it is all you have. 

The older I get, the more I lose interest in the so-called "Problem of Evil", and the more I think the yogis may be right:  the natural universe is here to give human souls experience.  It isn’t a problem to be solved.  There’s a wonderful 15th-century English Christmas lyric that briefly alludes to the traditional explanation of why the world is so screwball--Adam and Eve eating that fruit--then moves on to something much more pithy:

And all was for an appil,
An appil that he took,
As clerkes finden
Written in their book…

Blessed be the time
That appil taken was!
Therefore we moun singen
Deo gracias!

These people had an average life expectancy of 35, more of their children died than survived, they wore their hats at the table to keep the lice out of their food, and yet they praised God for the Fall of Man.  Blessed be the time that apple taken was.  As though Eden had been some kind of infantile Pleasantville. Because the Fall, Original Sin, maya, the First Noble Truth of the Buddha: they are reminders that we are all in this together—that we are all we’ve got, warts and all.  And who wants to live in Pleasantville, anyway— the fictitious 50’s sitcom into which two 90’s teenagers are mysteriously transported in the movie of the same name?  In Pleasantville--“a place where life is simple, people are perfect, and everything is black and white”—people do not suffer, but they cannot love.  Love is too messy a thing for a black-and-white world, and the suffering, sympathetic God is a stranger wherever maya is unknown.

I heard a speaker once who had lived with Mother Theresa’s Sisters of Charity in India.  He told of being at breakfast after morning Mass and seeing a young sister weeping.  When Mother Theresa asked her what was wrong, she replied, “Mother, I have touched Jesus.”  Now, Mother Theresa, the speaker said, had no time for soupy piety.  “Of course you have,” she rejoined, “You’ve just taken Communion; pull yourself together!”

“You don’t understand,” the Sister replied.  “We found a dying woman in the alley.  We scraped the maggots off her, brought her here, bathed her and put a clean sari on her, and held her hand until she died.” 

Mother Theresa softened. “Now,” she said, “you will never again receive a stranger in the bread and wine.”

God comes into the maya in order not to be a stranger—and in Jesus, God shows us how to be fellow travelers:  fully committed, taking life in both hands, yet making no claims on this world for a fulfillment that it cannot provide.  “My peace I leave with you,” Jesus said; “Peace such as the world cannot give.”  If you want the peace, you must be prepared to surrender and move on.

When Clare was four and Sophie three, we were all playing “baby Jesus” one evening, the girls having conscripted my wife and me into various roles.  Sophie, remembering something she had heard in the story, ran to the closet, put on her “fairy” costume, climbed up on the toy chest, extended her wand over us and said, “Don’t be afwaid!” 

Which is, of course, the secret of being a traveler and not a tourist:  don’t hold yourself aloof from the dangers of life; plunge in with both feet, as God did in Jesus, from the stable to the Cross.  If we would no longer see a stranger in the manger, there is nothing for it but to pitch our tent,  get down and dirty, and love. 

Merry Christmas.  Don’t be afraid.

[i] This quotation is a compilation of verses from Ecclesiastes.
[ii] Apologies to W. B. Yeats, “Among Schoolchildren”
[iii] from John 13
[iv] More apologies to Yeats, “The Circus Animals’ Desertion”
[v] Isaiah 57:15

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Pearl of Great Price

For the beauty of the earth,
For the glory of the skies,
For the love which from our birth
Over and around us lies;
Lord of all, to thee we raise
This our hymn of grateful praise.
—Folliot S. Pierpoint

Every fall when I was growing up, my family would find a reason to drive out among the fantastic colors of the Upstate New York autumn. My mom in particular would be transported over the reds, oranges and golds on the wooded hillsides between our home in Syracuse and her native Pennsylvania. Every few minutes she would exclaim, “Oh, it’s just so beautiful I can hardly stand it!”

On the face of it, this response to beauty seems strange, yet we have probably all felt that sort of pleasure that, in its intensity, verges on pain and which, notwithstanding, we can’t get enough of. Anne Shirley, in Lucy Maud Montgomery’s novel, felt the same sensation on her first sight of the spring flowers at Green Gables:
“It just satisfies me here"--she put one hand on her breast--"it made a queer funny ache and yet it was a pleasant ache…I have it lots of times--whenever I see anything royally beautiful.”  
 Somerset Maugham identified the same ambiguous ache in his novel, Of Human Bondage:
Along one side lay the Cathedral with its great central tower, and Philip, who knew as yet nothing of beauty, felt when he looked at it a troubling delight which he could not understand…It gave him an odd feeling in his heart, and he did not know if it was pain or pleasure. It was the first dawn of the aesthetic emotion.
Why should we ache in the presence of beauty? Why should the loveliness of either art or nature make us long for we know not what?

I am convinced that this movement of the soul has an exact counterpart in the body. What happens to us physically when we smell delicious food? We get hungry. What happens to us spiritually as we experience beauty? We get hungry. As the smell of cooking is the token of a feast for the body, whetting our appetite for the food that is the source of the aroma, so beauty is the token of a feast for the soul, whetting our appetite for the Source of beauty.

This, above all else, is why I seek God: just as the hunger of the body is meant to lead us to the body’s sustenance, so the soul’s hunger draws us toward the sustenance of the soul. If there were no such thing as food, there would be no such thing as hunger of the body—so because my soul hungers, I know that there is Bread of Heaven to satisfy it. Beauty is the aroma of the heavenly banquet.

Screwtape knew this, and did his best to warn his feckless nephew Wormwood of the power of beauty to undermine his demonic strategems:
Even if we contrive to keep them ignorant of explicit religion, the incalculable winds of fantasy and music and poetry, the mere face of a girl, the song of a bird, or the sight of a horizon are always blowing our whole structure away…So inveterate is their appetite for Heaven…  
These “incalculable winds” bear the scent of the “feast of rich foods” promised by Isaiah. God, I am convinced, draws us heavenward with this scent, just as the aroma of a pie in the old cartoons assumes the visible form of a beckoning arm that draws by the nose anyone within wafting range. We hunger, Paul Tillich tells us, in “anticipation of a fulfillment that cannot be found in an actual encounter.”[i] Simply put, because the smell is so good, we know the food must be even better--and because beauty moves us as it does, we know that beyond it must be something even more satisfying.

One reason I believe this is that Jesus, unlike other rabbis, sought out his disciples. Rather than setting up shop and attracting students as he acquired a reputation for holiness, which was the usual procedure, Jesus went out to the docks and dives and buttonholed his followers. “You did not choose me,” he told them later, “but I chose you.”

He talked about choosing in his parables, also:
The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in the field, which a man found and hid again; and from joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking fine pearls, and upon finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. (Matthew 13:45-6)
 I think the second in this pair of parables—the kingdom of heaven as pearl merchant—is often misunderstood. We hear references to “the pearl of great price,” but they often sound like the person making them thinks the term applies to the kingdom. Because the first parable likens the kingdom to a treasure worth acquiring at any cost, people seem to miss the point that in the second, the kingdom is the merchant, not the pearl. We are the pearl. It is us that God seeks, and gives everything to acquire. And the beauty of the earth, the glory of the skies, the love of family and friends, spring flowers and autumn colors, music and poetry and birdsong are like the moon that reflects back to us the sunlight of God’s love. Like the smell of Thanksgiving dinner, they are calling us home.

I wrote this poem years ago about the way God calls to us through beauty:

In an azalea garden one mild night,
A cloud of witnesses blowing around me,
Through crazy latticework of brief, wild white
The pale moon beams, like it had sought and found me.
Why does it almost hurt to gaze at blooms
That tug the heart with an alluring power?
We fill our shelves with books, and deck our rooms
With pictures, but we cannot own a flower.
Although we plant and tend it, still its art
Exists outside us, unassimilated;
We cannot have it—clasp it to the heart
And say, “Just this, and we shall be created.”
Soon it will leave us for another year;
It is wonderful for us to be here.

Happy Thanksgiving.

[i] Eusden and Westerhoff: Sensing Beauty: Aesthetics, the Human Spirit, and the Church (United Church Press, 1998)

Friday, October 16, 2009


Mt. Richardson

A friend of mine had a very negative view of marriage. The way she saw it, people treated it too much like a finish line--the ceremony completed, they were “done.” Of course, anyone who has been married for any length of time knows this to be far from true, but the divorce rate being what it is, my friend may have been on to something. People know how to get married, but often don’t give the same attention to making a life together. If people put as much thought into being married as they did into getting married, we wouldn’t have so many broken homes.

My wife Allison arranged a trip to Québec for our fifth wedding anniversary. (She’s a dynamite trip planner.) One of the highlights was an 1184 meter trek up Mt. Richardson in Haute-Gaspésie, the mountainous part of the Gaspé Peninsula.

At the top of the mountain, above the tree line, there are few landmarks, and feet leave little impression on the bare rock and lichen. Everything is grey and pale green; when Allison took an orange out of her backpack for lunch, it looked like the most orange thing in the world.

Along the way, previous hikers had left inukshuks, heaps of stones that serve as trail-markers. On the way up, we thought they were cute and sort of quirky; it wasn’t until we began our descent that we realized how vital they were. When we shouldered our packs and made to go, we were startled, even shaken, to realize that without the inukshuks, we could not have found our way back down. On the way up, it’s obvious where the top is, but once we’re at the top, every direction is down. Without the benefit of others’ experience, the potential for taking the wrong way is huge--and the consequences can be disastrous.

We see those consequences all the time: childhood stars who ruin their lives with drugs, American foreign policy misadventures in which we “win the war but lose the peace,” ostensibly made-in-heaven marriages that fall apart. We put so much into becoming, and only after we’ve proclaimed Mission Accomplished do we realize how little we have put into being. When Smithsonian folklorist Alan Lomax tracked down Jelly Roll Morton in 1930, the biggest jazz star of his time was working as a janitor, with a hole in his front tooth where a diamond had been embedded before he’d been forced to pawn it.[i] Obviously, there had been no one to show the Dixieland giant how to proceed after reaching his goal.

We are reluctant to accept guidance from others; our whole national psyche, forged as it was on the frontier among people who, for one reason or another, wanted to get away from other people, is steeped in a Marlboro Man mythology of rugged individualism. And because we find in scripture what we bring to it, American Christians have even managed to use the Bible—a book written by the same people who invented the kibbutz—to justify this self-image. But is rugged individualism really biblical?

Maybe it will help to look at the Bible through non-western eyes. I had the privilege of interviewing Indian theologian and social activist Vishal Mangalwadi for PRISM Magazine (published by Evangelicals for Social Action.) In Mangalwadi’s view, the individualist lens through which we view scripture obscures a biblical ethos that is essentially communitarian. Here is an excerpt from my article:

Vishal Mangalwadi has a problem with “salvation” being defined only as “my soul going to Heaven.”

“In John 11, the High Priest prophesies that Jesus will die for the nation,” Mangalwadi says. “So whom did he die for—for the individual soul, or for the nation?”… In Mangalwadi’s reading, the prophetic call for social justice is the background music to Jesus’ acts of individual healing. As an example, he cites the story of the sick man who has lain by the pool in Bethsaida for 38 years, hoping to be healed (John 5:9-11).

“Was Jesus healing the nation, or was he healing individuals?” Mangalwadi asks. “When he says to the sick man, ‘Pick up your mat and walk,’ whom is he healing? Obviously, he cares for the individual, but his sickness is not the problem! The man says, ‘I don’t have anyone who will put me in the water.’ Treatment is there, free and within his sight—the problem is that he lives in a selfish, individualistic society where people don’t care for him. So Jesus is saying, ‘OK, nobody has noticed him for 38 years—now they will.’”

...This is the blindness to which Jesus refers when he tells the authorities that, because they believe they can see, their guilt remains. “Because you see this man as a cursed sinner, you don’t see that he exists for the glory of God. You don’t see his dignity; you don’t see his character. He is begging because you are blind. So it’s their eyes he is seeking to open when he is spitting on the ground.”[ii]

After our climb up Mt. Richardson, Allison and I were driving a rented car to our next destination when we stopped to admire a view. We parked immediately after crossing a bridge over the picturesque stream we wanted to see, then decided to move a few car lengths further on in case another driver should come speeding over the bridge without seeing it. By sheer good fortune, we crossed to the other side of the road before walking to the bridge. Seconds later, a station wagon came barreling over the bridge so fast that we scarcely had time to think, let alone process what was happening. Once over the bridge, the car became airborne, sailing right through our original parking space to land on the far side of the ditch that ran along the road, then bounced, whirled around horizontally and came to a halt facing the way it had come.

We were close enough that the impact splashed mud onto my pants—and like the mud Jesus spat on the ground to make for healing the blind man, that mud opened my eyes rapidement: I instantly saw a hundred other ways things could have gone that would have ended with Allison and me maimed or killed.

We jumped over the ditch, and Allison went into physician mode, though neither of us spoke enough French to really communicate with the shaken and, judging by the smell, very drunken driver; he only looked dazed and shook his head at all our inquiries. His wife was injured, but not gravely, and he was ambulatory. They were very lucky. Within moments, another car and a tractor-trailer had stopped; the trucker laid his loading ramp across the ditch to assist in moving the couple onto an ambulance, which was a long time coming, as there was no cell phone reception in that relatively remote area, so yet another motorist had to call from a pay phone in the next town.

We learned later that Canadian law requires the first motorist who witnesses an accident to stop and offer assistance, though we had no sense at all that those who stopped did so grudgingly—in fact, we were the only actual witnesses, and at least three other motorists stopped after we did. In that semi-wilderness, reliance upon the kindness of strangers is imperative, and offering help is simply what one does.

I spent several years in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania; I have seen Amish barn-raisings, and heard the stories of people whose barns had burned down and been rebuilt by the neighbors. And if we are to believe Laura Ingalls Wilder, the pioneers behaved in the same way. Talk radio commentators like to mock the notion of “community,” but the fact is that unless rugged individualism is tempered with neighborliness, we end up with a society in which people can participate in any number of “virtual communities” without ever once helping with a food drive or clean-up day at the park. Many of us sign online petitions and click Contribute Here buttons, and think that money can be substituted for time,[iii] but never actually show up in the flesh. There may be virtual communities, but there are no virtual neighbors.

The Marlboro Man isn’t real. Only a weak and sheltered people could really believe that we can go it alone. The real pioneers built towns, with churches and railroads and telegraphs, at the first opportunity. If Hell, as Sartre famously put it, is other people, well, so is Heaven—and Purgatory and Limbo and the bardo and the Tir na N’Og: we are all we’ve got. If anyone says, "I love God," yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. (1 John 4:20)

Of course, I have injected hefty doses of Hell myself into various situations, my marriage most notably. Despite my friends’ warning, I decidedly treated my marriage as a “done deal,” at least during the worst part of my depression. After persevering for eight years to get her to the altar, I took my wife so much for granted during those days that our marriage was badly strained. Happily, I figured out before it was too late that going it alone wasn’t working.

Recently, my parish’s Spiritual Formation Director helped me assemble a personal “discernment committee”—a hand-picked group of fellow parishioners, a professional colleague, and another parent from our girls’ school. Using a packet of discussion questions, we are meeting a half-dozen times to help me figure out where to go next after climbing the wrong hill ten years ago. Though I saw the value of this and went ahead with it, the idea of all those people taking time out of their busy lives to spend several evenings Talking About Me made me very uncomfortable—not that I feared the scrutiny (obviously, since I write this blog;) rather, I guess I was afraid that they, having made this offering of their time and attention, would find it not worthwhile at best, a nuisance at worst.

But I’m sticking with it, and I’m glad I am. After all, "inukshuk," in the Arctic languages, means “something that stands for a person.” If I have actual living, generous people to help me find the way, so much the better.

[i] Donald McGill and Robert Demory, Introduction to Jazz History

[ii] Scott Robinson, “Jesus the Troublemaker,” PRISM, December 2005

[iii] cf. Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Butterfly House

The world you see has nothing to do with reality. It is of your own making, and it does not exist. A Course in Miracles, Lesson 14

The butterflies no longer flock to my daughter.

When Clare was four, her daycare center hatched some butterflies in a small screen tent. On the day they released them, I came to pick Clare up on the playground and saw her standing very still with an ear-to-ear grin and a half-dozen butterflies all over herself. “They just went to her,” her teachers said. The same thing happened whenever we visited a butterfly house: without any particular effort on her part, Clare would attract Lepidoptera like she exuded nectar; we’d have to check her for stowaways before leaving.

I don’t know why, but it doesn’t happen any more. Maybe some essence of baby innocence that once rose up from her no longer wafts from the self-conscious first-grader she has become. She tries, and my heart aches as I watch her patiently holding out a finger to the unresponsive insects, taut with wanting and, ultimately, deflated with disappointment.

That disappointment has colored the whole butterfly house experience. She still makes a beeline for them, but now there is a veil of wishing and remembering between her and her surroundings. A part of the Garden is lost, and that loss has imparted its flavor to what remains.

We experience, not the world around us, but our thoughts and feelings about that world. Years ago I was in an outdoor production of a Shakespeare play at a Renaissance Faire (Twelfth Night—guess which character I played) and was vexed to discover, once we were up and running, that the bagpiper led a parade down the hill right behind the audience precisely in the middle of my big soliloquy. Every time this happened, I inwardly resisted it, willing it not to be and, so doing, forfeiting any enjoyment I could have been getting from the scene. But one day it occurred to me not to kick against the goads but, instead of resisting, using the distraction by regarding it as part of the experience. The result was electric: the scene took off for me as it had never done before, and kept doing so throughout the remainder of the run. My judgment of my experience had been shutting out the gift the experience carried.

How can we get out of ourselves enough to actually experience our lives, unfiltered by shoulds, oughts and if-onlys?

There is a yoga discipline called pratyahara, which means “withdrawal of the senses.” During practice, the mind is supposed to be so focused that no distractions are able to enter our awareness. And that withdrawal is a good thing—I want to experience my experiences fully. But I like to think of pratyahara more broadly than that. When I am on a hike or picnic or retreat, for instance, I don’t want radio, television, recorded music or the internet intruding; I want to withdraw my senses from the overstimulating media that usually occupy them, so that my mind may be more available to the subtler experiences around me.

But even then, my “monkey mind,” as the Buddhists call it, continues to interpose itself between my awareness and the world. Everything I see and hear reminds me of something I need to do, someone who is trying my patience, another time and place in which I saw or heard something similar, something I know, or wish I knew, about the thing seen or heard. Nothing just is what it is on its own terms—everything becomes an object of my judgment and analysis, a springboard for my daydreams.

So I find it useful to regularly withdraw my attention, not from external stimuli, but from my internal commentary on them, which allows things to be more what they are. Be a stranger—be “not from around here,” the better to experience things as for the first time. It helps if the field of stimuli is relatively narrow—any activity I do more or less mechanically can clear a space for contemplative practice—and on a good day, when I am mowing the lawn or cleaning up the kitchen or folding laundry, I will remember to take advantage of the opportunity. Here’s what I do:

I begin by becoming aware of my breathing, which “takes attention away from thinking.”[i] The moment I begin this is one of the most satisfying moments of the day; there is a sense of release and restfulness, but not a somnolent restfulness—rather, a heightened awareness charged with energy even as it calms me, that gives me a pale glimpse of what it means to be “he who in the midst of the greatest silence and solitude finds the intensest activity, and in the midst of the intensest activity, the silence and solitude of the desert.”[ii]

I then begin to pray my mantra. I use the so-called Jesus Prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me. This prayer, adapted from the words of the blind man who called out to Jesus from the roadside, has been used in contemplative practice since the Desert Fathers and Mothers, and is still widely practiced in the Eastern churches

(A word of explanation: the Greek word eleos, which is translated “mercy,” actually has a broader meaning than we ordinarily ascribe to it, including not only forgiveness but healing. The word has the same root as elia, meaning “olive,” because prayer for healing was—as it often still is—accompanied by anointing with [olive] oil. The point being that a repeated prayer for mercy is not necessarily the grimly penitential exercise it might sound like.)

Now here’s the counter-intuitive part: you’d think that repeating something over and over in your head would just add to the chaos, but in fact it does just the opposite. When the monkey mind is occupied with the mantra, I am actually freed from the distraction of memory, anticipation, plans, regrets, fantasies and all the other busywork that occupies me most of the time. So I am able to see, hear, feel everything much more vividly, without a layer of commentary between my deeper self and my experience. What a potato feels like as I rub the dirt off its surface under the tap, how the ocean sounds on the far side of a stand of trees through which the wind is blowing, the licorice smell of a pile of pulled weeds—everything is novel and intensified, unfiltered by commentary and classification. Experience bypasses the monkey mind and registers more directly.

The Indian sage Patanjali wrote, “The Seer is intelligence only, and though pure, sees through the coloring of the intellect.”[iii] When the intellect is otherwise occupied, the view is less colored. The monkey mind leaves you alone. Think of it this way: there was once a Jewish village that was being tormented by a demon, so the people set up a greased pole outside the village and challenged the demon to climb it—which kept the demon occupied and allowed the villagers to get on with their lives. The prayer is like that greased pole. If you’ve ever sat your children down in front of a video to get them out of your hair (not that you or I would ever do that) you know what I mean.

If you have never thought of your mind as having multiple constituencies, you may be scratching your head now, but the idea is actually very old and widespread. Generally, the distinction is made between the unchanging, eternal inner Self—of which we are mostly or entirely unaware—and the morass of thoughts and emotions with which we usually identify ourselves. These thoughts and feelings are like engrossing, even spectacular displays of weather over Mt. Zion. We see the weather and think it is what we are—but in fact we are not the weather: we are the mountain.[iv] In contemplation, we can realize that, and be as unperturbed by our inner dramas as the mountain is by the weather.

(Cautionary note: don’t get the impression that I spend a lot of time in that state. “How rare the moment, and how brief its duration!” said John of the Cross—and he was pretty good. Better than me.)

This undifferentiated awareness that Patanjali called the “Seer”—called in Sanskrit the purusha—is, in yogic thought, the seat of the true Self, and is unchanging and eternal, despite the apparent “coloring” imparted to it by the intellect. The Bible similarly distinguishes between the psyche, or “soul” (Hebrew nephesh)—which is unique to the individual—and the pneuma, or “spirit,” (Hebrew ruach) which comes from God.

The belief that “spirit” is of God is behind the doctrine of the “Body of Christ” being made up, collectively, of all the faithful. “Christ has no body now on earth but yours,” wrote Teresa of Avila; “no hands, not feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which He looks compassion on this world.” Through our perishable eyes, something eternal looks out. So when we get our transient “weather” selves out of the way, our eternal “mountain” selves are made available to God—even identified with God. “I live,” said Paul, “now not I, but Christ lives within me.”

Which is why I’m glad my children are at a Friends school. The Quaker doctrine of the Inner Light—the belief that “there is that of God in everyone”—is so much in keeping with the baptismal vow to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself.” Western Christians have said before that we all have a divine spark within us, and been repressed for it,[v] but thanks be to God and William Penn, the notion has at last taken root and flourished.

This is why Quaker worship is so contemplative. Everyone assembles and sits in silence. If someone is “moved” to speak, they do. At weekly Meeting for Worship at our girls’ school, the whole period (only twenty minutes, since even the kindergarteners are included) usually passes in total silence. The practice being cultivated is a clarifying of the inner faculties and a patient waiting for the promptings of the Spirit—the illumination of the Inner Light. If we are to hear the still, small voice, we need to be still ourselves. We think that sleep is quiet and wakefulness active, but the opposite is the case: our busy, buzzy brains are keeping us asleep and shutting out the light; when they become quiet, the light dawns and we can awaken and see.

When I awake, I shall be satisfied, beholding Your face.

In our usual sleeping state, it’s just amazing how filtered our view is. So often I have revisited old haunts, trying in vain to recapture the feelings I had when I was first in those places years ago. Not only could I not feel as I had in the past, I couldn’t enjoy the places in the present. In his first memoir, Kirk Douglas described going back to Paris after the war and finding it not as exciting as when he was stationed there. He realized that he was actually seeking his twenty-two-year-old self—who was, of course, not there to be found. Like him, it took me lots of puzzled standing around and staring to figure this out.

I wonder if the Apostles felt the same way about the places they had been with Jesus after Jesus was gone? Did they see the streets of Jerusalem as they appeared when they walked them with their teacher, or as they actually were in the present? How long did they see through disciples' eyes before their Apostles' eyes finally opened?

Men of Galilee, why are you standing here looking up at the sky?

One evening, while walking up Nicollet Avenue to my apartment in Minneapolis, I heard an African American man's voice behind me sigh heavily--"What a day, what a day!" he said. That sounded like an invitation to talk, so I turned around and introduced myself, and we walked together up the main street of that part of the city--a street I thought I knew, but realized as we walked that I didn't. As I, a white graduate student in classical music, walked with this black working man, I literally saw a whole different street around us, one I had never seen before. People I had never before noticed greeted us--black people, Lakotas, urban working people, people who must have been there before but whom I had literally never seen. My frame of reference had not included them--but my companion's frame, which I was temporarily sharing, did. I ended up walking about a mile past my street, so fascinating was the experience. I grew up some during that walk.

On the second Bob Newhart show—the one set in Vermont—Newhart’s character explained to his wife why his disappointment over some particular aspect of their new lives as innkeepers (I can’t remember what it was, now) impaired his ability to enjoy their situation as a whole. He told her about being taken to the circus as a kid in the expectation that there would be tigers there. There weren’t any, and his disappointment blighted the whole experience for him. “Well, that was childish!” said his wife. “I was a child!” he replied. If his wife had had Paul at her fingertips, I suppose she might have rejoined: When I was a child, I spoke like a child, thought like a child, and reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up my childish ways. So get over it, already, she might have said.

I’m sure that Clare will get over her disappointment about the butterflies, and I'm sure I will, too. Sooner or later, she will stop wanting so badly for them to come back. I suppose that one of two things will then happen: 1) they will come back, because her desire is no longer driving them away. (If you doubt that this happens, try to remember the process of finding a prom date; is anything more off-putting than a desperate desire to be asked? The whole universe works this way, I’m sure of it.) Or, 2) she will be happy to view the butterflies where they are. Either way, her wishes for the future and memories of the past will no longer contaminate her experience in the present.

I used to have trouble reconciling Paul’s words about children with the words of Jesus: “I tell you with certainty: unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” How can we become like little children and, at the same time, give up childish ways? I remember driving Clare to a birthday party a couple years ago and trying to explain to her why some of the drivers around us were so aggressive and unsafe. “Sometimes the world isn’t a very nice place,” I told her. After a long silence, she said, “But Daddy, the world is still very pretty.” In that moment, I blessed God and knew that Jesus was right. Why on earth are we to put that childish vision behind us?

But I think I’ve worked it out. (Don’t thank me yet, there’ll be plenty of time for that later—and besides, there are probably 800 spiritual classics I haven’t read yet that already say this.) I think it breaks down like this:

1) As infants, we are undifferentiated from our parents, our world, and God. We are unselfconscious. We are totally dependent, and all our needs are met. Everything is new and astonishing to us. We experience our surroundings with great immediacy. Good and evil have no meaning. The mythic analog is the Garden of Eden; my butterfly-spangled daughter still had one foot there.

2) As we grow, we individuate and differentiate ourselves as we become self-conscious. As we gain experience, our world loses its newness, and we begin to classify things, viewing everything through the lens of what we remember and anticipate. We must increasingly meet our own needs. We have eaten the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and been expelled from the Garden. The medieval world reckoned this as happening around the age of seven, when, having reached full verbal competence and the Church’s “age of accountability,” the child was considered morally responsible.[vi]) The mythic analog is the Fall; my daughter is undergoing it now.

3) When we are able to see things as they are rather than as our distorting desires make them appear, we reunite with God on an adult level, combining the trust and boundarylessness of infancy with the (relative) wisdom of adulthood. We are “born again.” Communion—when “we who are many are one body, for we all share in the one bread”—is the outward invocation of this state; mythically, it is represented by the New Heaven and New Earth of the Book of Revelation.

And that’s something to hope for: the veils drop away, and we no longer have a chattering monkey-mind full of judging and desire between our inner selves and creation--no longer have to view the heavens through the distorting turmoil of emotional and intellectual “weather.” Even if heaven and earth aren’t actually new then, they will be new to us, because we will experience them for the first time. And if Paul is right, while we struggle to pierce the veil, we can be sure that it obscures the view only in one direction; though we struggle to know God, God already knows us:

For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known.

[i] Tolle, Eckhart, A New Earth
[ii] Bhagavad Gita, as quoted by Vivekananda in Karma Yoga
[iii] quoted by Vivekananda in Raja Yoga
[iv] Laird, Thomas, Into the Silent Land
[v] notably the 14th-century German mystic Meister Eckhardt
[vi] Postman, Neil, The Disappearance of Childhood