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.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Rope Trick

To the ego, the present moment is, at best, only useful as a means to an end.  It gets you from some future moment that is considered more important, even though the future never comes except as the present moment and is therefore never more than a thought in your head.  In other words, you are never fully here because you are always busy trying to get elsewhere.[i]  Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth:  Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose

That which is above is like to that which is below, and that which is below is like to that which is above.  –The Emerald Tablet of Hermes

(Note: if you’ve been following this blog, you may have noticed that the time between posts has been increasing.  This is because once I had plucked all the low-hanging fruit about my cute children, bad mental habits and shifting doctrinal landscape, I was left with nothing to do but actually confront the root causes of my profound screwed-up-titude—and that confrontation is something my inner Senate continually threatens to filibuster. I mean, how many times can a relatively reasonable person check his email, Facebook and the Huffington Post?  Enough to fill up whole afternoons with not-writing, apparently.  A large part of my brain wants to be anywhere but here, doing anything but this.) 

“I’m probably going to bail early,” I told the grad student who requested a ride to the potluck-and-bluegrass-jam that wrapped up the first day of the Mid-Atlantic Conference of the Society for Ethnomusicology.  I had left Philly at dawn to drive to Charlottesville, daylight savings time began that night, and I was giving my paper the next day; everything argued for a good night’s sleep. 

Need I say that’s not what happened? 

Most of the non-jamming guests had left by the time we packed up our instruments and said our goodbyes.  As I looked around for the people I’d come with, I heard the sound of an axatse (a West African instrument comprising a gourd enclosed in a network of beads) and turned to see our hostess demonstrating a complex 12-beat rhythm to a colleague by bouncing the gourd between her hand and thigh. I stifled an impulse to go over and learn the rhythm, too—I have to go to bed! I told myself--then turned sheepishly to the waiting grad student.  “I guess that bailing early plan didn’t work out,” I admitted.

En route to the hotel, I told my passengers that “I used to smoke weed when I was younger, until I discovered that the world is fascinating already.”  And it is.  When I let the dogs out before bedtime and hear the wind soughing in the neighbor’s gigantic sycamore tree, its looming form blotting out the stars over our back yard, it is fascinating; when we open up the Styrofoam cooler in the shed and find that the children have filled it with grass while playing Underground Railroad (apparently the grass represented provisions of some kind) it is fascinating; when I am bawling out my five-year-old, and my six-year-old tells her, “Daddy’s not saying you’re not a good person, Sophie,” it is altogether fascinating. Bluegrass and the axatse are fascinating.  Who needs weed? 

Of course, we all need fascination—what Paul Gauguin called “a sense of the beyond, of a heart that beats.”  One evening while our first daughter Clare was still a baby, my wife and I were having dinner at a friend’s house when Clare began to get fussy. Our hostess picked her up and took her across the room to look at a candle.  “Let’s get fascinated!”  she said.  Our baby stared, rapt and slack-jawed, at the flickering flame, and I saw for the hundredth time how numinous and mesmerizing the world was in her infant eyes.  Not presuming to have all the answers about anything she saw, or to be able to control things by naming them, she was happy to let the world be its fascinating self--almost as though she could detect “the dearest freshness deep down things”[ii] with some special sixth baby-sense. “We see the world with the five senses,” said Swami Vivekananda, “but if we had another sense, we would see in it something more.”[iii] 

Longing for this “something more” is, I believe, the reason people smoke weed; having lost the baby-sense, people turn to THC to open their minds to the bottomless fascination of the world.  Because we no longer have eyes to see and ears to hear, we have lost touch with the infinite, absolute, eternal life that animates our narrow, relative and temporary lives. "I tell you the truth,” Jesus said, “unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”[iv]  But changing is hard, and chemicals can seem to bypass the need for it.  It’s not for nothing that the body’s neurotransmitter that the cannabinoids in marijuana mimic is called “anandamide”; ananda is Sanskrit for “bliss.”[v]  We will, apparently, take our bliss any way we can get it. 

People do drugs because they want, as Marianne Williamson put it, “a different experience of what is.”  And it seems to work because “what is” is slippery and unstable; so much so, in fact, that many things can alter your roadmap of reality.  My first year or so of temp work was strictly blue-collar, from assembly line and warehouse work to flagging traffic to shoveling ore in a government mineral depot.  During a run of success as a composer, when my temp agency supervisors noticed my name appearing in the local papers and heard me interviewed on public radio a few times, I started getting “cleaner” jobs, like setting up insecticide displays in supermarkets—jobs for which I wore a tie.  I was astonished at how differently people treated me--even out in the country where nearly all the men wore work boots and lined flannel shirts--when I wore a white shirt and a tie.  I was the same person who had worn the reflective orange vest the week before, but when the complexion of the maya, or illusion, around you changes, people perceive and respond to you differently. If a drug could make that kind of difference in our experience of the world, you couldn’t keep it on the shelves.

(Sometimes a little maya bait-and-switch can be fun.  During a period when I was getting a lot of commissions and performances, expensively-dressed people would approach me at post-concert receptions and ask me where I taught.  “Actually, I work at K & W Tire,” I’d tell them.  The visible discomfort in their faces and bodies before they extricated themselves from my company and went to freshen their drinks:  priceless.)

So what happens when our experience of our lives is wildly out of tune with any rational assessment of our circumstances?  During a rehearsal at another musician’s house, my hostess handed me a drink.  Distracted with a piece of sheet music, I took the glass, seeing peripherally the clear liquid inside and assuming that it was water.  I took a drink and was appalled by the nastiness of the fluid in my mouth—which, as it turns out, was Sprite.  Which I like.  But because I had been expecting water, and my mind was configured for it, I experienced the Sprite as unpleasant.

My life is like that.  I have a fantastic life:  two wonderful, intelligent, thoughtful, exuberant children, a loving wife who puts up with me and keeps me honest and earns enough to allow me to stay home, keep house and garden running, compose and perform music and spend hours on a self-indulgent blog.  But because it isn’t what I was expecting, I often experience my life as confining, unfulfilling.  I expected it to be full of height and depth and gravitas, and have found it full of dog fur and goutweed.  I looked forward to being intellectually and aesthetically stimulated on a daily basis.  (What I thought would happen about the dog fur and goutweed I don’t know.)  I thought I would feel more important.

There are no Desert Fathers around when you need one to adjust your attitude.  I am haunted by the story of the young monk who went to Abba Moses for advice on spiritual advancement. “Go and sit in your cell,” the Abba told him, “and your cell will teach you everything.”  Your life as it is, here and now, is gravid with everything you need to know--but it seldom appears that way.  And yet, if we had eyes to see—if we could get our thoughts out of the way of our perceptions, if we could stop labeling everything with a “yes, I know all about that”--who knows what we could detect in the seemingly undifferentiated landscape of our lives?  If we had no mental category for “green,” the woods would be a riot of color.

I have never owned a television in my adult life, but when I was a child I watched a lot of TV.  And of course, life on TV always seems more interesting and fulfilling than life elsewhere, as it’s meant to. My own life involved a lot of being bullied on the schoolbus and playground, so TV had a lot of allure for me.  Moreover, my budding religious sensibility was stewed in a sort of vindicationalism: I got picked on at school, but I was going to reign with the saints in the Kingdom.  So there were some pretty powerful incentives to regard day-to-day life as unreal--a preparation for some more fulfilling, fascinating “real life” that was going to happen at some time in the future.

The worst of this is that so much good passes us by while we are on the lookout for something better. I read somewhere that most of us meet some 1400 people during our lives with whom we could be compatible life partners.  So why aren’t we all happily married?  Because we see other people through the filter of the ridiculous ideas in our heads.

And not just people.  Early on in my folksinging days, a number of friends urged me to “go on the circuit” as a folk musician.  I was reasonably good at it, and I loved doing it.  But something had happened in my brain that made me regard ballads, pub songs and fiddle tunes as mere avocation, and somehow frivolous; my real work, I always told myself, was in the musical world in which I was being trained in graduate school.  It didn’t matter that playing my concertina and inviting my listeners to sing along made me happy; I was a composer—which is to say, a “serious” musician.  I cringe with shame to recall this—some of the most phenomenal musicians I have known have worked in traditional music--but that is honestly how I thought about it.  I could watch a group of novice dancers and extend a tune until they had completed a figure before moving to the next part of the tune, I could invent lyrics on the spot, I could improvise a musical accompaniment to a Commedia dell’ Arte performance, I had several hundred songs in my head ready to go at any time—but those skills all involved music in the service of something else, while serious music existed purely as a sonic object to be politely contemplated in a concert or recital hall.  So I spent years of my life, great pots of money, untold hours of unflagging industry and enough emotional energy to power a small city trying to fit into that world and make that music.  Why didn’t I see earlier that I was barking up the wrong tree?

Half my lifetime ago I had an experience that, had I known at the time how to interpret it, could have saved me a lot of anguish and wasted time.  But life, as Kierkegaard pointed out, can only be understood backwards, and it would be many years before the lesson the experience had to teach me would finally become clear.

(All my former students should stop reading now.) 

The summer after I graduated from college I was with a group of friends, and we had all eaten psilocybin mushrooms.  For some time, I didn’t understand what the fuss was all about; I didn’t seem to be what I thought of as “tripping” at all. “I just feel stoned,” I said to a friend.  “That’s it,” she replied:  “Just relax into it.”

And she was right:  as soon as let go of my prefabricated mental construct of “tripping” and simply allowed my experience to be what it was, I discovered that I was indeed tripping, and in a big way.  It was all happening already, but my willing-it-to-be had kept it from my awareness. Sober, I had the life I wanted already, and I didn’t know it, because I never “relaxed into it.”  The Zen teacher Sunryu Suzuki made a very similar point about the pursuit of satori, or sudden awakening, in meditation:

(A)s long as you think, “I am doing this,” or “I have to do this,” or “I must attain something special,” you are actually not doing anything.  When you give up, when you no longer want something, or when you do not try to do anything special, then you do something. When there is no gaining idea in what you do, then you do something.[vi]

Relax into it.

(Now, let me be clear:  I am not recommending mind-altering drugs.  There are far too many uncontrolled variables, too many dangers.  And the mind, moreover, is like a computer:  garbage in, garbage out.  The second time I used mushrooms, I was in a worse state of mind than I realized, and the drug released an amazing trove of mental garbage; the experience was so terrifying that I vowed never to do it again, a vow I have kept for twenty-four years. Finally, drugs and the like only seem to be expanding our minds while we are under their influence; they make no real and lasting change in us.  Eckhart Tolle posited that, while things like meditation can take us above our thoughts, things like drugs and television take us below them; both can free us from our thoughts, but not in equally beneficial ways.[vii])

Sri Ramakrishna, the 19th century Bengali saint who is regarded by many Hindus as an Incarnation of God, used a telling metaphor about wisdom seekers “doing something” in their quest for God. They climb the stairs of renunciation one by one, Ramakrishna said, and when they finally reach the roof, they discover that it is made of the same brick and lime as the stairs.[viii] We are not going anywhere, because we are already there—or at very least, “there” is not essentially different from “here,” now matter how much we sacrifice to our belief that is surely must be.

I’m tired of wandering; if the “one indivisible Self” resides in us all, where is there to go?  The Infinite does not “go” anywhere.  It is—you are--already there.

Jesus was apparently trying to get his hearers to “relax into it” when He told them, “The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say, 'Here it is,' or 'There it is,' because the kingdom of God is within you."x  There is no place to go;  it is already here--you are already there. 

This is how the world regains its fascination: by our looking at it neither through the eyes of deluded desire that compare it to something “better” in our heads, nor through the eyes of calculation and greed for gain, but through the eyes of the Kingdom within, the eyes of a little child who sees “the dearest freshness deep down things.”  Not of drugged sleep, but of alert wakefulness.

“Could you not stay awake with me for one hour?” Jesus asked His disciples on the last night of His earthly life.[xi]  I think He asks each of us the same thing—“Keep awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”[xii]  When Jesus asks us to keep awake with Him, he is inviting us to share in His divine life and ministry.  According to poet Andrew Hudgins, Jesus is

…someone walking through his life—or hers—
Until God whispers, It’s you. And God’s ignored…
Or does God simply choose us all?[xiii]

So OK, smartass, I tell myself:  if you’re Jesus—if you abide in Him and He in you like vine and branch[xiv]--stay awake with yourself! Don’t be continually falling back into the sleep of life inside your head, don’t be always drawing a veil of expectations and desires between yourself and the circumstances in which God and your karma have placed you.  Don’t end up like Jacob, who had to physically wrestle with his Creator and sustain a painful injury before he could say,  “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.[xv]

Vedantic philosophy uses the image of coiled rope in a dimly-lit room to explain our cognitive dysfunction. If upon entering the room we mistake the rope for a snake, we will be unable to see the rope, and we cannot see the rope until we stop seeing the snake.  As long as we see our lives as preparatory, stalled, unreal or unfulfilling, we cannot see them as numinous, fascinating, “charged with the grandeur of God.”[xvi] These, says Paul Simon’s song, are the days of miracle and wonder—but all days are the days of miracle and wonder if we are fully present to them.  The earliest Christian texts speak, not of the “return” of the Christ, but of Christ’s “revelation;” when the scales fall from our eyes, we will see that we are already in God.  This is surely what the Psalmist longed for when he prayed,

When I awake, I will be fully satisfied, for I will see you face to face.[xvii]

[i] Tolle, Eckhart.  A New Earth:  Awakening to Your life’s Purpose.  Plume, 2006.  (202)
[ii] Hopkins, Gerard Manley.  “God’s Grandeur”
[iii] Vivekananda, Jnana Yoga.  Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center, 1982.  (28)
[iv] Matthew 18:3
[vi] Suzuki, Shunryu. Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. Shambhala; 2006. (page 44)
[vii] Tolle, Eckhart:  A New Earth:  Awakening to Your life’s Purpose.  Plume, 2006.  (229)
[viii] The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, Abridged edition.  Translated by Swami Nikhilananda.  Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center, 1988.  (271)
[ix] Katha Upanishad  II.i.9
[x] Luke 17: 20b-21
[xi] Matthew 26:40
[xii] Matthew 25:13
[xiii] Hudgins, Andrew. “Crucifixion—Montgomery, Alabama.” Upholding Mystery: An Anthology of Contemporary Christian Poetry.  David Impastato, Editor.  Oxford University Press, 1996. (8)
[xiv] cf. John 15:15
[xv] Genesis 28:16b, ESV
[xvi] Hopkins, Gerard Manley.  “God’s Grandeur”
[xvii] Psalm 17:15b, NLT