Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Zuckerman's Barn

It is quite possible that an animal has spoken civilly to me and I didn’t catch the remark because I wasn’t paying attention. Children pay better attention than grownups. If Fern says that the animals in Zuckerman’s barn talk, I’m quite ready to believe her. Perhaps if people talked less, animals would talk more. E. B. White, Charlotte’s Web

...a mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels. Walt Whitman, "Song of Myself"

Stage magicians Penn and Teller caused a stir in the magic world when they began showing audiences how tricks were done. (http://www.5min.com/Video/Penn--Teller-How-to-Do-the-Saw-Trick-4988312) This worked because, contrary to what you might expect, taking the magic out of the trick didn’t actually…take the magic out. When the audience saw what was really happening, they were as amazed by the reality as by the illusion.

I believe that miracles work mostly in the same way: God allows us to see the depth behind the everyday existence of which we usually see only the surface. And the reality is more astonishing than the illusion.

Here’s an example, from 2 Kings:

And it came about when the LORD was about to take up Elijah by a whirlwind to heaven…Elijah said to Elisha, "Ask what I shall do for you before I am taken from you." And Elisha said, "Please, let a double portion of your spirit be upon me." He said, "You have asked a hard thing. Nevertheless, if you see me when I am taken from you, it shall be so for you; but if not, it shall not be so." As they were going along and talking, behold, there appeared a chariot of fire and horses of fire which separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind to heaven. Elisha saw it and cried out, "My father, my father, the chariots of Israel and its horsemen!" And he saw Elijah no more.

Elijah told Elisha that he would become his spiritual heir if he saw him—the clear implication being that Elisha might well not have seen a chariot and horses of fire come to take Elijah up to heaven in a whirlwind. If Elijah would have been taken up that way whether Elisha saw it or not, the miracle is not in the occurrence, but in the seeing. Like Penn and Teller, God allowed Elisha to see the way it was actually done.

Another, more recent example: the nineteenth century Russian monk Seraphim of Sarov, after fifteen years of austerities in a hermitage, moved back to the monastery when, because of his reputation for holiness and wonder-working, people began to seek him out in his retreat. He took on the role of a staretz, or spiritual advisor. One day, sensing that he was having trouble getting through to a disciple, he took the young man by the shoulders and said, “Look at me.” The disciple told Seraphim he couldn’t bear to look at him, because lightening was coming from his eyes and he appeared to be all aflame. Seraphim told the disciple that he was able to see him in that way because God had opened his eyes. Once again, it’s evident that someone else might have been in the room also and seen nothing unusual—the seeing was the miracle.

So when we read some pious legend about a friar surprising St. Francis at his prayers and seeing him levitating or whatnot, the relevant question, it seems, is not “what actually happened?” but “what did the informant actually experience, and what does it mean that he or she experienced it?” The spiritual reality is always active behind the visible reality--we are surrounded by a “great cloud of witnesses.” A miracle is when we’re enabled to peek behind the curtain.

Of course, what we can actually see every day is pretty miraculous, too. In Charlotte’s Web, Dr. Dorian gives Mrs. Arable his take on the “miraculous” writing in the spider’s web:

I don’t understand it. But for that matter I don’t understand how a spider learned to spin a web in the first place. When the words appeared, everyone said they were a miracle. But nobody pointed out that the web itself is a miracle.

The web is White’s symbol for the miraculous within the everyday. But what exactly is a "symbol"? Well, the word “symbol” comes from two Greek words meaning “thrown together.” When two friends were about to be parted, they would break an animal bone, each of them keeping one half as a symbol of the other. In other words, the symbol you hold in your hand is only half of a reality, the other half of which is elsewhere—and the two halves symbolically throw the two of you together. And I think the phenomenal world is sown with symbols of the spiritual world--effulgences of the hidden world that burst forth into the visible one. Why else should there be music? Or flowers? I think Christopher Smart was right: flowers are peculiarly the poetry of Christ. Notwithstanding all the valid evolutionary explanations about bees and pollination, the fantastic blue of delphiniums is here for us because God just couldn’t help himself. And the other half of that symbol is with God, and can throw us together with God if we let it.

So we needn’t be on the watch for something overtly extraordinary. A spider’s web or bird’s nest, photosynthesis, azaleas and the wonders of the human brain—we can explain them to an extent, but we can never explain them away. They are miraculous, and on our very best days, we can see that. There is a Zen Buddhist sutra that says, “Not knowing how near the truth is, we seek it far away. We are like one who, in the midst of water, cries out in thirst so piteously; we are like the children of a rich man who wandered away among the poor.” We often miss the miracles because we are looking for magic.

When Elijah was hiding in the cave, God told him to watch, because he was about to pass by the cave. An earthquake came, but God was not in the earthquake. A great wind came, and God was not in the wind. A fire roared by, and God was not in the fire. Then came the sound of “a still, small voice”, and that was where God was.

That voice is the one I’m waiting to hear. I have become like the grownups in The Polar Express, who cannot hear the silvery tinkling of the sleighbell. When the miracle comes that will show me what I’m supposed to be doing with myself, it may come as a symbol, or it may come as a revelation, but it will surely not come as a magic show. All the stuff that got me this far down the wrong road—that was the magic, the illusion, the trickery. Perceiving the miracle will require attentiveness--which is not my strong suit—and waiting for it will require patience, of which I have never had much. I am too prone to trying to force things--too much like the frustrated child whose parents have said, “We’ll see.” As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t really have very much faith.

With the summer about to end and the prospect of the fall semester beginning without my having anything to teach, I recently looked into enrolling in a trade school, with an eye toward making a career change. A number of people have told me I’d be good at the thing I’m looking into doing, and though becoming certified to do it would require a big investment of time and money, it would allow me to have at least a part-time job to go to.

But my wife is cautioning me against committing to any course of action I have picked out for myself. She thinks I should spend at least a semester neither teaching nor doing anything else to fill up the void. Rather than Finding Something to Do just for the sake of having it, she thinks I should wait attentively until just the right thing presents itself, applying myself in the meanwhile to figuring out who I really am and what I really value.

I’ll still need to curb my fearful, grasping nature in case that miracle, or fortuitous chance occurrence, or outcome of penetrating discernment comes along. When God rained down manna in the wilderness, he cautioned the Hebrews to gather only what they needed for each day. If they tried to force things by gathering extra and keeping some in reserve, on the next morning they would find it rotten and full of maggots. Instead of grabbing at something just because I think I need it or ought to be doing it, maybe I should apply that energy to cultivating attentiveness and trust.

And even if I didn’t think of this as waiting for a miracle—even if I thought I was waiting for something revelatory to happen by chance—chance, as Louis Pasteur pointed out, favors the prepared mind. And maybe if I talk less, the universe will talk more.

Monday, August 3, 2009

What's In You for Me?

We tend to think of chastity as having to do with sex. This is because we tend to think of everything as having to do with sex. A fuller discussion of sexual chastity, continence and celibacy is out of place here, and has been done elsewhere. (www.newadvent.org/cathen/03637d.htm, for example.)

I am more interested in chastity in the broader sense, as set forth in the Principles of the Third Order of St. Francis:

Our chief object is to reflect that openness to all which was characteristic of Jesus. This can only be achieved in a spirit of chastity, which sees others as belonging to God and not as a means of self-fulfillment.

By this definition, chastity is that quality of mind whereby we are able to perceive others, not in relation to ourselves and our agendas, but as complete in themselves.

You’ve probably seen at least one old cartoon in which each of two characters, marooned on a desert island or adrift in a lifeboat, seem to see the other transformed into a steak or a turkey leg or something. Then they start shaking salt on each other and whetting their carving knives. That’s what unchastity does to us: transforms other people before our eyes from something actual into something potential--with the potentiality being wholly in relation to ourselves.

Capitalism is rife with unchastity. Before I had CDs to sell, I had audiences; now I have potential CD buyers. So not only is the quality of my relationship to my listeners less immediate than it was, but I cannot be fully satisfied with the interaction unless it ends in a transaction. I used to want to connect with people; now I want to profit by them. (Or at least recoup my investment by them.)

How often have I been at a gathering and mentally divided everyone into those who could help me, and those who couldn’t? Does a person’s personal magnetism increase with their potential to buy what I’m selling, get me gigs, advance my career or introduce me to other useful people?

Unchastity doesn’t always appear in such gross forms—there are subtle forms, too. Will a person’s conversation amuse me? Or instruct me? Or provide material I can steal? How will this person respond to me? Will they be impressed by my knowledge and accomplishments, feeding my sense of self-worth? Will they find me interesting and funny, thereby helping me find myself interesting and funny?

In his “Essay Concerning Technology,” Martin Heidegger describes people’s tendency to view things not as things, but as potential other things. Our gaze transforms a river into a potential power source, a forest into potential building materials. Nothing is simply what it is—everything is “standing in reserve,” as Heidegger puts it.

What frightened creatures we are, always worried that the future will bring scarcity and lack unless we grab all we can in the present, always hopeful that every person we meet and every situation in which we find ourselves can be turned to our advantage. This must be why Jesus told his disciples not to worry about what they were to eat, drink or wear: so that our human interactions would be untainted by the dirty devices born of our fear. In fact, the single most frequent utterance of Jesus recorded in the Gospels is “Do not be afraid.” Prudent providence is one thing; faithless unchastity is another.

This is one of the best things about being a Eucharistic Visitor—a layperson who brings Communion to parishioners who cannot attend church. Most of them are elderly, confined either to their own homes or to a retirement home, and I am more free of personal agenda in my interactions with them than in almost any other interactions. And I think I am finally learning to really pay attention to people.

All the Gospels give accounts of Jesus seeming to read people’s minds. I don’t think there was anything supernatural involved in those incidents. If Jesus “didn’t need to be told about people, for he knew what was in a person,” I think it was because he was paying attention. He was able to size people up as they were, because he wasn’t trying to size them up as potential means for his own self-fulfillment.