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