Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Interlude: R.I.P.

It must have been those broken chromosomes that finally did him in.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Reflections: Par-TY!

You viper's brood, how can you say what is good when you are bad? For from what overflows the heart the mouth speaks.


But when the unclean spirit goes out of a man, it wanders through waterless regions looking for a place to rest, and finds none. Then it says: I will return to my house that I came from; and it comes and finds it free and swept and furnished. Then it goes and picks up seven more spirits worse than itself, and they go and settle there; and the end for that man is worse than the beginning. Thus it will be also with this evil generation.

~from The Gospel of Matthew, translated from the Greek by Richmond Lattimore

This explains, for instance, why conquering one's addictions through the exercise of will power is not enough. And why the resulting self-satisfaction is fatal.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Readings: Boomin' Blackly

African American novelist, John Edgar Wideman, is perhaps not technically a Boomer. Born in 1941, he would have been starting middle school in the year that I entered kindergarten. But, then, he was educated and raised by the so-called Greatest Generation. And he also endured its racism.

Wideman’s new novel, dedicated to its title “character,” Frantz Fanon, the West Indian revolutionary exemplar, and francophone author of The Wretched of the Earth, begins with this 1956 Fanon quote:

The imaginary life cannot be isolated from real life, the concrete and the objective world constantly feed, permit, legitimate and found the imaginary. The imaginary consciousness is obviously unreal, but it feeds on the concrete world. The imagination and the imaginary are possible only to the extent that the real world belongs to us.

Wideman then uses this idea in the first few pages of his novel. The voice is that of his protagonist, himself a writer, addressing an imagined Fanon:

Stipulating differences that matter between fact and fiction – between black and white, male and female, good and evil – imposes order in a society. Keeps people on the same page. Reading from the same script. In the society I know best, mine, fact and fiction are absolutely divided, on set above the other to rule and pillage, or, worse, fact and fiction blend into a tangled, hypermediated mess, grounding being in a no-exit maze of consuming: people as a consuming medium, people consumed by the medium.

Fiction writing and art in general are scorned, stripped of relevance to people’s daily lives, dependent on charity, mere playthings of power, privilege, buying and selling.

My society polices its boundaries with more and more self-destructive Manichean violence now that its boundaries are exposed not as naturally or supernaturally ordained but organized through various sorts of coercion by some members of the society to benefit themselves and disadvantage others.

Under what rock, whose skirts have I been hiding, you might be wondering, not to have learned these truths before I began zipping up my own trousers. A good question, Fanon. A more difficult question: if I truly understand all of the above, why am I still writing.

Fiction writing and art in general are scorned…” Hmm. Where did I hear something along those lines said just recently? Oh, yeah!:

If they [Gen-Xers] would read, they could know more; but, as you say, they don't. The thing on my blog that inevitably gets the fewest comments is a quote from a serious book. Usually, it gets none at all.

Maybe it’ll all come out as a video game one day?

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Interlude: An Alternative for Liberals


Readings: White as...?

I was moved and disturbed by the following childhood anecdote concerning one of the six central characters in Karen Joy Fowler’s novel, The Jane Austen Book Club:

One day when she was four years old, while leafing through Sylvia’s beauty magazines, Allegra had taken offense at how much white space she found. “I don’t like white,” she’d said. “It’s so plain.” She burst into tears. “It’s so plain and there’s so much of it.” She sat for more than an hour, sobbing, working her way through the pages, coloring in the whites of people’s eyes, their teeth, the spaces between paragraphs, the frames around ads. She was sobbing because she could see that she would never be done; her whole life would be used up in the hopeless, endless task of amending this single lapse in taste. She would grow old, and there would still be white sheets, white walls, her own white hair.

What do you think “white” is a metaphor for here?

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Readings: Spin This

When I was in college, the translations of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey mandated for my Great Books course were those of Richmond Lattimore. I have for some time been meaning to check out his translation from the Greek of The New Testament. Having finally gotten around to borrowing this from the library, I thought I’d provide a sample of it here. Lattimore did not use any updated language in his translation. It doesn’t sound, or feel, much different than the Revised Standard Version. The major difference is that he doesn’t break up the narrative with the standard chapter and verse demarcations, so the story flows in a more natural way.

So, here is an excerpt from the Gospel of Mark that has some relevance to a discussion I’ve been having in the comments section of a previous post:

As he set forth on his way, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him: Good master, what must I do to inherit life everlasting? Jesus answered: Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not bear false witness, do not defraud, honor your father and your mother. He said to him: Master, I have kept all these commandments from my youth. Jesus looked at him with affection and said: One thing you lack: go sell all you have and give it to the poor, and you shall have a treasury in heaven; and come and follow me. He was downcast at that saying and went sadly away; for he was one who had many possessions. Jesus looked around at this disciples and said: How hard it will be for those with money to enter the Kingdom of God. His disciples were astonished at his words. But Jesus spoke forth again and said to them: My children, how hard it is to enter the Kingdom of God; it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God. They were very much astonished and asked him: Who then can be saved? Jesus looked at them and said: For men it is impossible, but not for God, since for God all things are possible.

So, go ahead: spin that.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Reflections: Like Mailer, Like Weil

I have lately been neglecting my devotions to Simone Weil, whom I consider to be the patron saint of this blog. Perhaps, then, it was subconscious guilt over such neglect that caused me, when I read the sentence from Christopher Hitchens’ introduction to his interview with Norman Mailer which I quote below, to have the thought that it might be applied with equal insight to Simone Weil:

His deliberately paradoxical stance of ‘left conservatism’ is offered semi-belligerently as a challenge to those who remain fixed in orthodoxy or correctness.

In musing upon what I might have at hand that would provide authoritative support of this hypothesis, it occurred to me that no lesser conservative saint than T. S. Eliot had written a preface to Weil’s brilliant but disturbing book, The Need for Roots, and that this would be excellent ground to mine for corroboration of my notion. The second sentence of Eliot’s preface seemed to fit the bill:

The reader of her work finds himself confronted by a difficult, violent, and complex personality...

Certainly, this is a statement which could be applied with equal accuracy to Norman Mailer.

A bit further on, Eliot informs us that Fr. Perrin, the Catholic priest who served as Simone Weil’s intimate and sounding-board in her on-going interior disputation with orthodox Catholicism, had opined: Je crois que son âme est incomparablement plus haute que son génie. [I believe that her soul is incomparably superior to her genius.]

This is saying much, as Simone Weil’s genius is vast. But if I might, by way of comparison, interject my own opinion of Mailer here, I would say that transferring this concept from the sphere of religious philosophy to that of creative and expository writing, it can be said of Mailer that his genius was incomparably superior to his talent. In reading Mailer, one has the feeling that through his fiction, and even through his most excellent non-fiction, such as The Armies of the Night, he never quite got it all out. This inexpressible thing that he harbored inside comes through, perhaps, more directly in conversations such as this one with Christopher Hitchens, than it does in his worked and reworked published writings.

Hitchens having commented on the paradox embodied in the thought of Norman Mailer, compare this observation of Eliot's on Weil:

In the work of such a writer we must expect to encounter paradox. …And in her political thinking she appears as a stern critic of both Right and Left; at the same time more truly a lover of order and hierarchy than most of those who call themselves Conservative, and more truly a lover of the people than most of those who call themselves Socialist.

That seems like a pretty fair characterization of a ‘left conservative’ to me. A bit further on, Eliot says:

As a political thinker, as in everything else, Simone Weil is not to be classified. The paradoxicality of her sympathies is a contributing cause of the equilibrium. On the one hand she was a passionate champion of the common people and especially of the oppressed – those oppressed by the wickedness and selfishness of men and those oppressed by the anonymous forces of modern society. ...One the other hand, she was by nature a solitary and an individualist, with a profound horror of what she called the collectivity – the monster created by modern totalitarianism.

Consider the similarity between Eliot’s comprehension of the paradoxical nature of Simone Weil’s philosophy, and this exchange between Christopher Hitchens and Normal Mailer:

I remember you once saying to me that you’d refined your dissidence, you could give it a name, you were now a fully paid up left conservative. Elaborate on that.

Well, as you can guess, it’s almost impossible to elaborate on it, because one of the laws of rhetoric is that you cannot elaborate on an oxymoron. And being a left conservative hits most people absolutely that way, they just stop thinking and they look at you aghast.

This is, I think, much the way most people, confronted with the thought of Simone Weil – her person, as well as her philosophy – will react. She is almost too much for us process – intellectually , or emotionally. But if one can only suspend this cognitive disability and immerse oneself in her biography, as well as in her writings, she will repay that act of intellectual charity again and again and again.

[On a personal note, these musings on the supreme exemplars, Weil and Mailer, serve to strengthen my disdain for that orthodox school of culturally conservative thought which understands culture to have reached a peak in some Golden Age prior to the hatching of the poisonous egg containing that monster raptor, Liberalism, which, once hatched, rampages through our world, devouring any and all values in its path. Could they but obtain the means, these intellectual totalitarians
would go back, Amish-like, to that pre-Liberal age; they would arrest and bind culture at that point, avoiding all future risk by pinching off the all intellectual evolution in the bud. Stasis is death, not life.]

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Reflections: More Mailer

One problem that I have with the mind-set that would burn books as a means to the end of establishing a “public orthodoxy” is that it is emblematic of a kind of cowardice. It is an effeminate act, a sort of intellectual nesting impulse, which wants to abide behind basalt-hard walls of cultural stasis, perched upon feathered layers of the pluperfect, hunkered down upon the finished, the thoroughly known, safely classified and encased; the self a part of the time-frozen diorama that defines it. It is, among other things, a priggish fear of the mixed metaphor.

In the introduction to his interview with Norman Mailer, Christopher Hitchens displays his admiration for Mailer’s expression of the polar opposite understanding of the cultural role of the intellectual:

Hitchens: The phrase ‘culture is worth a little risk’ was uttered by Mailer in the early 1980s, after his literary protégé Jack Henry Abbott, author of In the Belly of the Beast, had been released from prison only to slay again. I always thought that the statement itself was more important than the calamitous context in which it was uttered.

While Mailer’s personal history, as well as his literary career, shows him to be unafraid of risk-taking, aware that one can often learn as much, or more, from one’s failures as from one’s successes, this does not mean that Mailer is unappreciative of that which is rife with traditional culture:

Mailer: Culture’s worth huge, huge risks. Without culture we’re all totalitarian beasts. I’d go as far as to say that it’s the only thing that keeps us from going totalitarian, given the new world of technology, which inspires us to be totalitarian. After all, what technology promises is that we can all be control freaks. That the world is ours to dominate. The fact that we no longer have any senses left after we’ve been working at a fluorescent-lit computer for six hours, that’s by-the-by. …And culture is more than just being able to get it on CD-ROM. Culture is going into a library, and finding an old book on an old shelf, and opening it, and it has the patina of the past and maybe hasn’t been taken out in five years, and that’s part of its virtue at this point. There’s a small communion that takes place between the book and yourself, and that’s what’s disappearing.

Mailer, in fact, refers to himself as a “left conservative,” about which more in a future post.

[On a personal note, as a bibliophile who spends more than a little time searching the stacks for esoteric literary gems, I am very much attuned to Mailer’s observation concerning the “communion” between the book and the reader. When I borrow an old, long-neglected volume from the library, I always check the back to see how much time has elapsed since it was last checked out. The longer it’s been, the more special I feel my personal relationship to that book to be.]

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Readings: The Nature of Paradox

From The Ghost Road by Pat Baker

The character, Rivers, a British physician, musing about his days traveling throughout the islands of Melanesia as a member of a missionary team:

By late afternoon they’d moored by a rotting landing stage on Eddystone, and clambered ashore to supervise the unloading of their stores. Rivers was used to missionized islands where canoes paddled out to meet the incoming steamer, brown faces, white eyes, flashing smiles, while others gathered at the landing stage, ready to carry bags up to the mission station for a few sticks of tobacco or even sheer Christian goodwill. A cheerful picture, as long as you didn’t notice the rows and rows of crosses in the mission graveyard, men and women in the prime of life dead of the diseases of the English nursery: whooping cough, measles, diphtheria, chicken pox, scarlet fever – all were fatal here. And the mission boat carried them from island to island, station to station, remorselessly, year after year.

A study in unintended consequences.

Friday, April 18, 2008

WWWtW-Watch #11: Bwaaa-ha-ha-ha!

Dedicated to the proposition that it can happen here.

I only wish that I had read this WWWtW post, entitled Art Imitates Death, before its author discovered that its basis was a “hoax.” Hoax is not even the word for it—it’s a joke. I will not recapitulate the basis of this WWWWtW offering here, since it is ugly in the extreme. I wish only to point out that the simple biological and physiological implausibility of the story having been true should have tipped off any but the most credulous of bumpkins that the thing was a total fabrication. Read it -- it'll blow your mind.

So why was it believed? It was believed because the kind of self-righteous, finger-pointing and prurient hatred that fuels WWWtW can have no existence, no raison d’être, unless the hate-ful can be found and made the object of scorn. It was believed because the author wanted, nay, needed to believe it.

And these are the type of people to whom we entrust the education of our children

But, at the same time, what better case could one make against the wisdom of accrediting home schooling than this post?

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Readings: on The Road to Cana

Back on March 8, I posted on the Anne Rice novel, Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt. I had been inspired to read the book by the review of its sequel, Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana, posted by Tom of Disputations on February 23 (scroll down).

I have now, finally, this week, been able to get my hands on The Road to Cana, which I finished reading this morning. Since we already have Tom’s fine review, I will make only a couple of small observations about the book. Both come near the end of the novel, at the Wedding in Cana, after Christ has chosen the first of His disciples. First, a passage that particularly struck me as instructive. Here, Jesus is at the wedding feast, listening to the rhythm of the drums, and pondering the nature of time:

Time beat on, and in time, as I’d told the Tempter, yes, as he’d tempted me to stop Time forever – in time, there were things yet unborn. It struck a deep dark shiver in me, a great cold. But it was only the shiver and fear known to any man born.

I did not come to stop it, I did not come to leave it at such a moment of mysterious joy. I came to live it, to surrender to it, to endure it, to discover in it what it was I must do, and whatever it was, well, it had only begun.

It strikes me that Anne Rice has said something profound here about our calling to pick up our own crosses, each of us, and to follow Him.

Finally, there is a character in the novel whom Anne Rice has imagined, named Silent Hannah. As the name suggests, she is a deaf-mute. Rice portrays her as a dear, loving young woman, isolated by her disability, but devoted throughout her life to Avigail, whose wedding is being celebrated at Cana. There are several occasions throughout the plotting of the novel at which the reader wonders—why does Jesus not restore Silent Hannah’s ability to hear and to speak?

Finally, on the second to last page of the book, after Jesus has changed the water to wine, and has wandered a ways from the celebration, come these lines:

Beyond them and far to the left, on the farthest margin of the garden away from us, amid a small grove of shining trees, there stood a tiny robed figure with her back to us, rocking from side to side, her veiled head bowed.
Tiny and alone, this dancer, seemingly watching the rising sun.

Tiny dancer, I thought? Is Anne Rice giving a hat-tip to Elton John here, or what? But, no, of course not. What Anne Rice has done is save the healing of Silent Hannah to the very last page of the book. Is this overly sentimental? Is it a chick-lit move on Rice’s part?:

I placed my hand gently on her throat.
She struggled, eyes wide, and then she whispered it:
“Yeshua!” She was pale with shock.
Yeshua, Yeshua, Yeshua.
“Listen to me,” I said as I put my hand on her ear and then on my heart – the old gestures. “ ‘Hear O Israel,’ “ I said, “ ‘the Lord Our God is One.’ “
...I repeated it once more and then the third time she spoke the words with me.

Hear O Israel. The Lord Our God is One.
I held her in my arms.
And then I turned to join the others.
And we started for the road.

I wept. (Well...let's just say I got a little misty.)

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

WWWtW-Watch #10: I Own, Therefore I Am

Dedicated to the proposition that it can happen here.

In his latest stab at profundity, Paul J. Cella, who moonlights as beadle over at WWWtW, has presented a scenario in which he purports to counsel a “correspondent” in How to Argue Against Socialism. We must admit that in so doing he does, indeed, descend to the depths.

In offering his sop of wisdom to this eager would-be disciple, Mr. Cella inadvertently discloses yet again that as a self-designated “Crusader” (Bwaa-ha-ha-ha!), he is--in heedless imitation of the Crusaders of old--out, not for the rescue of souls in captivity, but for the taking of plunder:

What I should like to recommend to my correspondent, who so boldly demanded how to argue against the Servile State which is Socialism, is this.

He should forget attacking Socialism because it doesn’t work (the politics of it), and begin attacking it on its own principles (the philosophy guiding it). Admittedly this is a greater burden on the intellect, but I believe my correspondent is up to the challenge. What he must demonstrate is that Socialism is evil even if it does what it says it will do; that to destroy the principle of private property is to amputate an irreplaceable part of what it means to be human, what it means to labor and create and be fruitful; in religious terms, that it is a heresy, an innovation that will annihilate, a revolt against the nature of man and the natural order of the world; in short, that it fails not because it doesn’t work, but rather it doesn’t work because it fails — fails utterly to reflect in any meaningful way the truth about Man and Society.

Let's examine the core of this remarkable pronouncement in isolation:

[...] to destroy the principle of private property is to amputate an irreplaceable part of what it means to be human, what it means to labor and create and be fruitful;

Setting aside for a moment the inconvenient truth that socialism per se does not proclaim as a goal the destruction of the principle of private property, what does Mr. Cella--who holds himself out as an exemplar of unquenchable zeal for the preservation of “what remains of Christendom”-- make of the words of Our Lord with regard to the concept of allowing the ownership of private property to become central to one’s life, and to one’s very self-image as a human being?:

Matthew 6:19-21: Don’t lay up treasures for yourselves on the earth, where moth and rust consume, and where thieves break through and steal;
but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consume, and where thieves don’t break through and steal; for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

It might also be pointed out to Mr. Cella that “what it means to labor” is that Man has been cursed by God for his sin in the Garden to earn his living by the sweat of his brow. None of this, apparently, “speaks to Mr. Cella’s chest”; but it speaks to mine.

The name of Mr. Cella’s god is, evidently, I OWN THAT I OWN. Mr. Cella has clearly snatched at the offer made to Jesus Christ by Satan on the heights, and clings to it with a bitterness undiluted by such weaknesses as humility, brother-love and charity. Mr. Cella and his correspondent make a good pair, of the kind which Our Lord may have had in mind when He said, Leave the dead to bury the dead.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Interlude: Baracka Macaca

The old ‘60s hippie anthem advises that “When you go to San Francisco/Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair.” Well, Barack Obama should have stuffed a couple of bunches of peonies in his friggin’ mouth before he went anywhere near the Bay Area. Mr. Obama, who thought he was in a closed fund-raiser and could speak his mind in an unfiltered fashion, forgot the cardinal rule of contemporary life: If you go down a dark alley to take an emergency whiz at 2:00 a.m. in a rain storm, your act will surely be viewable on YouTube before the pavement dries. Yes, there was a troll with a cell phone in the midst of Obama’s crowd, and Barack done got busted bad.

Don’t get me wrong: Obama did nothing other than speak the truth. But you can’t tell a bunch of angry, ignorant, gun-toting, snake-handling, rural bigots that they are angry, ignorant, gun-toting, snake-handling, rural bigots. You have to tell them instead that America is the Light of the World only because America reflects the glow that they shed on this great land by dint of their patriotic fire.

How could things get worse than having delivered this Unspeakable Truth to the Great Unwashed of Appalachia before a crowd probably gay, left-wing, atheist, millionaires in that most Un-American of all possible cities? Hillary—not exactly just plain folks herself—now has an opening to label Obama an “elitist” to an audience that has been trained over the years by the forces of reaction to believe that “elite” is synonymous with “socialist.” Hillary is taking full advantage of that opening. No Clinton ever saw an orifice he wouldn’t thrust himself into.

Good Lord, do I hate politics!

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Readings: ...But Not Forgotten

When I got home from work last Friday, I found that my friend Jim—a guy you’ll probably never meet, as he steadfastly refuses to blog—had sent me via snail mail two essays which he had, years ago, carefully ripped out of magazines, or journals. One was an essay by Czeslaw Milosz that was published in Harper’s. The other, and the one concerning which I intend to write at least a couple of posts, was an interview conducted by Christopher Hitchens, with Norman Mailer.

The hard copy of the Mailer piece gave no indication of either its date, or its origin. From context, one could assume that it was pre-Millennium, and, thus, pre-9/11. I searched the internet and found it here. This would date it from 1997.

Tonight, as a teaser, I share with you Mailer on Bill Clinton:

Clinton’s very bright. His heart is as often in the right place as the wrong place. But there’s something about him that’s hopeless. Which is he’s not ready to die for a political idea. And what I mean by that is not that he’d die literally with his own flesh and blood, but that he’d lose his political career over an idea. He’s not going to do that, and so he’s going to die for the absence of a political ideal. And that’s his terrible weakness. I’ve said this before, but if I could be a sixteen-year-old French peasant girl named Joan of Arc, I’d go to him and say, ‘Dauphin, you must save America.’ He wouldn’t. He’d go back and forth, back and forth. Everything about him that’s good is wiped out by that fact, that he simply doesn’t have one last idea that, whatever else they take away from me, they can’t get that idea.

Does Mailer nail that, or what? As it turns out, it may well have come to pass that it is Hillary’s political career, more than his own, that is brought down by the Achilles’ heel so presciently described by Mailer. She has got the family curse, and he is running around America highlighting that fact, even as I write.

This may well be the crucial difference between Hillary and Barack Obama. Obama’s refusal to back down on such things as his support of his pastor, regardless of the political consequences, would surely have drawn Mailer’s praise. His latest alleged “gaff” concerning the “clinging” of “bitter” small-town losers in the global economy crap-shoot to “God and guns” by way of compensation is spot-on. But you can’t say that on television. Again, America may not be ready for Obama in Prime Time.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

WWWtW-Watch #9 : A Little Help

Dedicated to the proposition that it can happen here.

Being a former English major, I was severely tempted to dedicate an installment of WWWtW-Watch to Lydia McGrew's modest proposal, entitled Plotting to Save the Humanities. The situation is, however, that I currently have seven books checked out of the library, and my leisure time to read is falling ever further behind the branching interests of my intellectual curiosity: I've bitten off more than I can chew. Since I feel a real need to be spending more time reading than blogging for the nonce, I was very pleased to see that Kyle of Postmodern Papist has taken Lydia on himself. He has said everything that I might have said, and has done so not only better, but with much more propriety than I would have been able to muster. Therefore, without further ado, I direct you to Kyle's post.

Quote du Jour

A quantum universe – neither random nor determined. A universe of potentialities, waiting for an intervention to affect the outcome.

Love is an intervention.

Why do we not choose it?

~ Jeanette Winterson, The Stone Gods

Friday, April 11, 2008

Quote du Jour

Every word written is a net to catch the word that has escaped.

~ Jeanette Winterson, The Stone Gods

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Interlude: Where's the Bubbly?

"The champagne bottle has been pushed to the back of the refrigerator. And the progress, while real, is fragile and is reversible." ~ Gen. David Petraeus

I have a hunch that the champagne has actually been spirited across the border into Syria, where it will be refrigerated for future use, alongside Saddam's WMD. Ya gotta love those "reversible" operations.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Readings: Shelter From the Storm

I am going to provide several excerpts below from a remarkable little book that came to my attention recently, and that I experienced a great deal of pleasure in reading. I learned of the book through an old, yellowed newspaper clipping that I found in a file at work. The reason that the clip came into my hand—there are no coincidences in these things--is that this book, My Brother’s Place: An American Lutheran Monastery, is a fitting complement to The Ascent to Truth, the Thomas Merton book on the contemplative life, which I am currently reading, and which I have quoted below. If there can be said to be a coincidence here, it is that the author, George Weckman is, among many other things, the organist of my parents’ church.

But, wait—a Protestant monastery? In Michigan? In contemporary America? I mean, I grew up in Michigan; my mother’s whole side of the family is Lutheran; one of my first cousins is a Lutheran pastor; and I hadn’t a clue. Nonetheless, it’s there:

[A] monastery is a place where people go to pursue a private path to religious self-awareness, self-consciousness in the presence of God. That must be something one does alone, even in the midst of other people, even in an institution dedicated to it. [My Brother’s Place, p.52]

Prof. Weckman stresses the value of the monastery on several levels. One that struck home particularly with me is the value of the monastery as a focal point of ecumenism with the Roman Catholic Church, towards the much-longed-for goal of a unified Communion. But it’s Weckman’s writing on the value of monasticism’s primary activity—prayerful contemplation—and particularly on reading as contemplation, and the relationship of contemplation to education, that most struck a responsive chord in me. Without further comment, I will now provide the promised excerpts:

First, contemplation as the careful, sensitive examination of ideas and stories is very close to scholarly study. This kind of contemplation consists of reflection and meditation on the meaning of the Bible and other religious texts. It explores the stories, images, and ideas found in such writings. It does not concern itself with footnotes and bibliographies and it does not worry over historical accuracy or systematic consistency, as academic scholarship must. It is, nevertheless, intent on deriving meaning and message from the inspired classics of the tradition. It dwells especially on the various connections and implications of the words and the personal dimensions of passage.

This kind of contemplation is very important for religions of revelation and books, while other kinds are more central in other religious traditions. The emphasis on words, understanding and communication, has its Christian charter in John 1: "In the beginning was the Word." Listening to the Word is the beginning and heart of Christian contemplation. The Word is a person, not words, of course, but the person speaks in words and is known through words. If contemplation also moves beyond words it never completely rejects them in a religion of incarnation. Through the words, the Word becomes incarnate and dwells in the presence of the listener and reader. [My Brother’s Place, pp.53-54]

Education is an instrument of the search for God. Such contemplation is a slow, unhurried process. It is symbolically associated with the central organs of the body, not with the speed and accuracy of a calculator. As Luke (2:51) says of Mary's cognition: "she treasured up all these things in her heart." The heart as an organ of thought connotes the correlation of ideas and emotions, getting used to things, and integrating them into one's personality. [My Brother's Place, p.54]

My advice: Set your alarm for 4:00 a.m. Rise before the dawn and read deeply, while still awash in the alpha waves. Read both early and often.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Reflections: Good Advice

A Piano Lesson:

“Curve your fingers,” Viola said. She took Jenny’s hand and made it into a claw. She shook it at the wrist. “Relax a little.” She showed Jenny how to play a scale.

What she wanted was even fingering. She wound a metronome to demonstrate. She and Jenny clapped along. “Don’t love any of the notes more than the others, “ she said. “Every note needs just the same amount of time to breathe.”

“I don’t love any of them.” Jenny didn’t mean to speak. It just came out.

“I see,” said Viola. She gave Jenny an appraising look. “Don’t hate any of the notes more than the others, then.”

~ from Sister Noon, by Karen Joy Fowler

Thursday, April 3, 2008

WWWtW-Watch #8: Pharisees - Which Kind Are You?

Dedicated to the proposition that it can happen here.

This installment of WWWtW-Watch is not going to direct you to any particular posting on that site, but rather will ask you to contemplate the following excerpt from Thomas Merton’s book, The Ascent to Truth, from which I also quoted in my previous post. I find that what Merton has to say here is particularly applicable to the attitudes towards dissenting “outsiders” who have been unfortunate enough to stumble into the doctrinaire realm of What's Wrong With the World. Here, then, is Merton:

Just as there is a Pharisaism of knowledge, so also there is a Pharisaism of studied ignorance, for one perverse instinct can feed on everything under the sun. The man who is proud of an abstruse and technical doctrine, difficult to acquire and acquired by few, may be proud in the same way as another man who is pleased with a sweet religious ignorance that makes him feel complacently superior to all learning. Each of these two men is proud of the same thing. Each thinks he has reached a peak of secret wisdom which is closed to all but a few. But the ignorant Pharisee is perhaps more obnoxious than the other, since he is proud of what he conceives to be his humility, and this is a great perversion.

It seems to me that it is precisely because the WWWtW crew is comprised of individuals who are “proud of an abstruse and technical doctrine” – a doctrine which they would, given power, establish as a “public orthodoxy” – that they are so belittling, contemptuous, derisive, and dismissive of any person who disagrees with their point of view. I have in previous installments of WWWtW-Watch provided examples of this mode of “argument” and so will refrain from repeating those here. Suffice it to say that it is highly unlikely that any person finding his way to WWWtW is going to be of the “Aw, shucks-Just regular folks-Gimme that old time religion, it’s good enough for me” type of Pharisee who is characterized by Merton as the most obnoxious. I, for instance, was led to WWWtW by Zippy Catholic, whose personal site I had been visiting for years, and whom I considered to be a friend until he took to labeling me a “troll” for the benefit of his WWWtW cronies.

But, it’s not about me, or my hurt feelings; rather, it’s about the attitude displayed at WWWtW for any and all thought that can’t, or won’t, be brought into conformity to the party line. It’s about the subtextual agenda at WWWtW to subvert the Constitution by outlawing dissent. It's about intellectual totalitarianism.