Saturday, October 31, 2009

Out of the Mouths of Undergrads

The Roman poet Horace once said, “It is when I try to be brief that I become obscure.” I have developed a similar maxim as I struggle through life as a professional paper-grader: “It is when I try to be nice that I become snarky.” Sometimes the students make it quite difficult not to be.

But since this is supposed to be my listening-blog, I thought I would try to extract life lessons from my most recent round of undergraduate pontifications.

* * *

Beware of the ol’ bait-and-switch: "Freedom is there for the taking, but it has to be worked for."

Equality is relative: “They were still limited and not treated as equal as white Americans.”

Any statement can be contradicted by saying the same thing with more words: “This difference that he references is not a social difference, rather it is a difference in perspective and conflict between social identities.”

For postmoderns, stories can be characters: “Being the main character but not the narrator, the entire story is focused on the man.”

What do authors know about the work? “Granted, Hemingway may feel that I am evading his point of the hero…Yet the fact of the matter is that…”

The best metaphors make meanings more obscure: “A slow death has the chance to act as a kind of time-travel reflecting pond.”

And, most importantly by far...

Bloggers are the world’s best humanitarians: “What better way to assist the rest of the human population in deciding how to live than by publishing your opinion on the subject?”

Surely these lessons were worth staying up until 5am to learn!

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Losing of our prayers

Since I don’t shout-out to other blogs very often, I thought I’d post an excerpt from one of the blogs I read, in which a mother often writes about her precocious 5-year-old Calvin and his 3-year-old brother Hobbes. In a recent post she writes:
Calvin and I had a rough night tonight, and he was angry when he went to bed. I asked if he would like to pray and ask God to help him get rid of the anger. He prayed, "Dear God, please help the anger to stay inside of me."

Hobbes piped in, "Dear God, please help the anger to go out of Calvin."

Calvin countered, "Dear God, please don't listen to Hobbes. Make the anger stay inside of me. I want to be angry forever, so just don't listen to Hobbes."
Yes, little Calvin, the idea of healing is often offensive to crippled souls. I can’t count how many sermons I’ve heard from John 5 that suggest that Christ’s question to the lame man, “Do you want to be healed?” implies that we bar the doors for our own healing because we would rather be lame. The first step to healing, the standard formula goes, is wanting healing. For the Calvins out there, that prospect can be pretty bleak.

But I wonder... I wonder if, just as little Calvin’s prayers for God to preserve his anger in his spirit forever will hopefully not be answered, our stubbornness is not as detrimental to Grace as we might fear. If I would rather keep my bitterness and God would rather I lose it, maybe I’m fighting a losing battle. Maybe redemption, regardless of the ways I try alternatively to concoct or hinder it, is inevitable anyway.

Be still, my soul; redemption cannot be hurried or slowed. When you would recoil at the thought of healing, maybe it’s only a matter of time before reverse entropy takes you there anyway.

As a better writer once said:
We ignorant of ourselves,
Beg often our own harms, which the wise powers
Deny us for our good; so find we profit
By losing of our prayers.
-William Shakespeare

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Genocide with Morning Coffee

Edmund Spenser was the poet who settled me once and for all on Renaissance literature, and in that way at least you could say he changed my life. While I was still living in my intercity commune imagining that higher education was the Isaac I had sacrificed on the alter of service to the poor, I found myself sneaking cantos here and there of the half-finished masterpiece The Faerie Queene, finding the beauty of the poetry, richness of the allegory, and depth of the ideas just the medicine I needed to keep my spirit alive.

After coming to graduate school, I could only fall further in love with his poetry. I wrote a paper on the Amoretti, in which Spenser is instrumental in directing the Petrarchan love tradition toward marriage. I wrote a paper on the Epithalamion, which C. S. Lewis cites as being one of the few successful portrayals of pure joy in English poetry. And of course, I wrote a paper on the breathtaking, masterful Faerie Queene itself.

I decided that if I were to ever have a son, I would name him Edmund.

“I love Spenser!” I said to Seamus last summer in response to a mention of where he had stayed in Cork. As the words spat recklessly out of my mouth, I anticipated my error, and was tempted to look over my shoulder for fear that members of the IRA or their 16th-century equivalent would emerge from the shadows in response to my flippant utterance.

The Irishman looked uncharacteristically soberly at me, his constant smile dropping momentarily as he gained his composure. “Edmund Spenser essentially lobbied for the genocide of the Irish people,” he stated mater-of-factly.

What does one say to that? I remembered that Spenser had written something called A View of the Present State of Ireland when he was secretary to England’s lord deputy of Ireland, but I hadn’t gotten around to reading it. “Oh,” I managed.

“He was a terrible man,” Seamus maintained, adding graciously to lighten the mood, “but he did write some beautiful poetry.”

Maybe so... but after all, isn’t that the way with most evil in the world? Weren’t lynch mobs composed of salt-of-the-earth Southerners who rallied after church on Sunday? Weren’t Nazi death camps run by fathers and mothers who were probably otherwise pleasant Germans? Weren’t Rwandan massacres carried out by joyful, hospitable Africans? Weren’t terrible atrocities committed by people like... me? Weren’t their hearts shaped a lot like mine?

It seems an undeniable fact of history that mostly-lovely people can have shocking blinders that somehow allow them to confuse genocide with morning coffee (oops!). Spenser was not the first to make this kind of error; “the man after God’s own heart” found himself committing murder to cover up his adultery (rape, by most modern definitions), and needed a prophet to come spell it out to him before he realized it had been a bad thing. I know a lot of people who are perturbed at God for thinking so highly of such a scoundrel. I sometimes figure that that very egregiously overlooking nature of his is the only hope most of us have.

Maybe the primary reason we are called to forgive is that we don’t know what genocides we may be casually supporting with our mundane morning coffee. Maybe most of us are likewise terrible people who write some beautiful poetry (or, more gently, beautiful people with some terrible blind spots). Thank God he likes the poetry!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Bagpipes and Beauty

On Tuesday I was driving my two older nephews, five and three, to a nearby lake to do some plant identification with a horticulturalist friend of mine (a.k.a. Plant Guy). In my efforts to expose my godsons to the finer things in life, I played Celtic music in the car, which to my delight had the boys transfixed.

“This is a bagpipe,” I explained to them during one song. “They play them in Scotland, mostly, but I think there is enough sharing of cultures between the two countries that they play them in Ireland as well. At least, I saw them a few times when I was there, though they might have been there just for the benefit of tourists who don’t know the difference between Ireland and Scotland. They are really funny-looking instruments...”

At this point I began my feeble efforts to describe a bagpipe to preschoolers while I drove. The five-year-old who had developed an early love for musical instruments four years earlier listened intently, my description no doubt giving him a strange picture.

“Oh,” he finally sighed dramatically, “I do hope I get to see a bagpipe in real life before I die!”

I was shocked at his entirely appropriate response. “Well Buddy,” I replied, “I hope so too.”

“Actually,” he continued, “I think everyone should get to see a bagpipe in real life before they die!”

Again, I could not agree with him more.

But he was not finished. “But some people never get to see a bagpipe in real life before they die,” he lamented mournfully.

“No,” I agreed, surprised at the somber turn in the conversation. “It’s very sad.”

“Some people die when they are little babies, and they never get to see a bagpipe in real life. It is very sad when that happens.”

“You’re right, it is quite sad,” I said, never having thought of that particular aspect of the tragedy of infant mortality.

“And some people lived a long, long time ago before there were any bagpipes, and they never even got to hear a bagpipe.”

Again, what could I do but agree?

“But I am still quite young,” he mused, “so hopefully I have a lot of life left in me. I imagine I’ll get to see a bagpipe before I die.”

Well, Little One, I sure do hope so. In the mean time, thank you for the reminder of what I had felt the first time I had heard the bagpipe, and the reminder to love the beautiful things in the world. What a saturated world of gratuitous beauty we live in, full of mountains and skies and the color green and... as if that were not enough... bagpipes on top of everything!

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Good Friday, 2009

This is a follow-up from the previous post about the middle voice of faith, but I want to add more explanation because it may sound grimmer than I intend it to. I wrote this on Good Friday after the most bleak Lent I had ever experienced, after trying to maintain faith when I couldn’t understand or feel or do anything. By the time Easter arrived two days later, I was becoming aware that God was redeeming the little hells around me. By a couple weeks later, I realized that it had ceased to surprise me. I seemed to have believed for a while, and had not realized when it had happened.

Faith does not always announce its coming with a trumpet. Sometimes it simply sneaks into the place we have prepared for it like a bandit, and by the time we see it is there we realize it had been living there for a while.
Give me a year or two, and I may call
This Friday “Good,” when savageness and rape
Have ceased to startle me the way escaping
Echoes of redemption do, and all
My over-clenching fingers simply flop
Upon whatever they receive. I’d know
It better if you spoke in Greek, to stop
My pre-established definitions. So,
Call “Good” the bleeding, punctured lung, perhaps
Because it’s swallowed in a bigger story,
The way the food I eat becomes my glory
Or that rivers swallow empty gaps;
And you who call this Friday “Good” because
You own the definitions can say this was
And just like he did with Sarah thousands of years before, God did seem to go back over those months and rewrite my doubt into faith. Faith had made its home in the places prepared for it, and I had hardly known when it had arrived. It would figure.

Preparing Places

My little brother’s best friend at the international high school he attended in France was a delightful kid from Norway whom I always appreciated for getting my little brother into poetry. The two boys shared the best parts of themselves with each other, I suppose; the Norwegian gave his sometimes-macho friend a love for poetry, and the American gave his European-atheist friend his faith. By the time both boys moved back to their respective motherlands for their senior year of high school, the former atheist was returning to blaze a new trail as a Christian in an a-religious country. It was quite beautiful.

Which is why it broke my heart when he visited us in the States three years later and broke it to me that he had given up trying to be a Christian, and was back to being as staunch an atheist as ever.

“I really did try for years,” he explained to me. “I prayed. I attended church. I read my Bible. But after two years I looked back and realized I still didn’t even believe God existed, and I could no longer try to fool myself. If I could believe, I would have. It’s not a matter of whether or not I want to believe; I just don’t.”

Had I been a healthier Christian, it might have shaken my faith a bit to hear his account of God not showing up, or at least God not showing up in a way that the young man could identify, not showing up in a way that mattered. Instead, that anecdote went onto some running list of why God is frustrating to me and sat there for a few years.

And then this week my little sister brought it up again, and her words resonated with the seminarians’ thoughts about the middle voice of faith this past summer.

“I was thinking about how he tried to believe for years and then realized that he still didn’t believe,” she mused. “But I wonder if maybe trying to believe is believing.”

Maybe she is right. Maybe, all those times this past spring that I tried to believe God was redeeming the hell of my Muslim friend’s life when I didn’t understand it or feel it or know what to do, maybe trying to believe was believing.

If my friends are right and faith is a gift rather than something we can conjure within ourselves, then maybe the call to have faith is a call to make space for it. Our part in living a life of faith perhaps involves preparing the places where faith would be living if it were there. For me last spring, that involved being a part of my Muslim friend’s life when everyone else seemed to back away. For my brother’s Norwegian friend, it had involved his prayers to a God he didn’t know existed.

Perhaps that is why the Church throughout the centuries has been praying the Liturgy of the Hours. At regular intervals throughout the day, whether one is feeling holy or profane, whether he is happy or sad, whether he connects with the words or numbly reads them off like a grocery list, he prays. If faith were to make its home in a person, I suppose that might be one place it would live.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

They shall not enter my rest

Moses said to the LORD, "Why have you dealt ill with your servant? And why have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people on me? Did I conceive all this people? Did I give them birth, that you should say to me, 'Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a nursing child,' to the land that you swore to give their fathers? Where am I to get meat to give to all this people? For they weep before me and say, 'Give us meat, that we may eat.' I am not able to carry all this people alone; the burden is too heavy for me. If you will treat me like this, kill me at once, if I find favor in your sight, that I may not see my wretchedness."
“The story of Moses always breaks my heart,” I remember explaining to a friend across the table at a coffee shop. “He clearly had never wanted to lead the people in the first place, but had led them anyway when God called him. He had a miserable time with it. The people were constantly wanting to stone him, and their stubbornness added another 40 years to the journey. During that time God decides he’s going to wipe out the people, and it is Moses who wrestles with him and convinces him not to wipe them out. And after all that, at some point, God tells Moses to speak to a rock and he hits it instead, and then God won’t let him into the Promised Land. Seems like God’s pretty mean.”

“No,” my friend struggled, seemingly unsure of how he knew this, “God’s not mean. Something else is going on there.”

“Seems pretty mean to me,” I persisted. “And I’m no Moses... if this is what a man like Moses can expect after 80 years of serving God, what do we have to look forward to?”

My friend looked at me sadly, unsure of how to speak words of Grace into the world as I saw it.

“I mean,” I continued when he had nothing to add, “he keeps leading the ‘stiff-necked’ people after God tells him he won’t get to enter the Promised Land, and then sits on a mountain at the edge of Canaan begging God to change his mind. But God had some point he needed to make about Moses not showing his name as holy before the people or some ambiguous thing like that. For whatever reason, that was worth more to God than letting Moses enter the Promised Land.”

I concluded strongly, as if I dared him to suggest redemption in a story like that.

“Em,” my friend finally interjected, “Moses did enter the Promised Land.”

I looked stupidly at him, wondering which Bible he had read.

“He did,” he insisted. “At the Transfiguration. Jesus was there with Moses and Elijah. Moses was there.”

I sat there dumbfounded. Truth be told, I was halfway scandalized. My friend was right. My most bleak, grim, hated Bible story had suddenly been tainted with Grace, and my standard extreme-situation trump card had been trumped. While Moses had been cheated out of the Promised Land because of some ambiguous punishment, the Punishment had been cheated out of Moses when Christ came.

And I don’t know why that conversation is coming back to me this week, except that I am being reminded that as much as pain is deeper than the airy, ephemeral sentiments that Christians often confuse with hope, Grace is deeper than the pain.

Sunday, October 4, 2009


There is an ancient form of hazing practiced among a peculiar tribe of creatures from the land of Academia (if the name sounds like a nut, all the better) that we have come to call a “thesis defense.” The ritual involves the victim being forced to endure sundry humiliations for approximately one hour. Some examples are as follows:

Questions about a central point of ones thesis: The victim will assume the interrogator has found a hole in the main argument, some key issue that was not explained well enough in the carefully crafted thesis, and will fumble to formulate a new answer on the spot as if it were possible to say in one minute what he had not said in one year of meticulous research and writing. The interrogators will watch him sweat through his fumbling answer for a while, no doubt inwardly grinning, and then end the torture by saying, “I think you actually answered this question quite nicely on page 12. Let me read your words.”

Questions about complex issues in the broader scope of the cosmos that the thesis innocently provoked: The victim will stare blankly at the interrogator for a few panicked moments, hoping there was some mistake and the interrogator will realize he had meant to say “Thomas More” (who was the subject of the thesis) rather than “Ben Jonson” (who wrote a century later). When it is clear that no such relief will come, if the victim has the presence of mind to refrain from asking “Do you want me to answer that?” (which he may not always have), he will fumble through an elementary sort of answer before finishing with the only definitively true thing he can say: “…but I haven’t yet done the research necessary to speak confidently on the subject.” The interrogator will nod and interject pointedly, “Well, you’re going to need to look into that,” a message that seems to have been the purpose of the question in the first place.

Questions of the softball variety: These questions often come from the kind, outside-the-area interrogator, and are essentially to the effect of “Can you define that word you keep using?” The victim will feel the sudden ecstasy of being given an easy question, ecstasy which is quickly subsumed in panic when he realizes that the other two scholarly giants in the room had defined that very word countless times in his sophomoric youth, nuancing it ad nauseam in rich ways they would no doubt want to hear replicated by their academic progeny. The victim may indeed catch the softball, but do such a sloppy job of it that he may as well have dropped it. No doubt the interrogators feel that their years of teaching the victim have been wasted.

And the purpose of the ritual? That though the victim may walk away initiated into the tribe of Academia with the new title of “Master of Arts,” he will know that he ain’t mastered nothin’ yet.

But ya know, I’ll take the title anyway. You may all call me Master Em now.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

The Middle Voice of Obedience

During my last week in Ireland, I saw Father Padraic several times: once after mass on Sunday, once for coffee on Monday, once for lunch with the seminarians on Wednesday, and once for gin-and-tonic before I left on Thursday. Over coffee, we talked about (among other things... Fr. Padraic never pushed or even brought up the issue) my interest in the Catholic Church.

“I’m just imagining myself standing next to my little sister on her wedding day,” I tried to illustrate what the thought of being ‘out of communion’ with Protestants looked like for me, “whose diapers I had once changed and who has grown into my best friend, and abstaining from communion just because the Catholic Church wants to make a point that the Protestants’ little crackers and grape juice are not what they never claimed that they were. I understand the issues of Church division that are behind it, but the actual action itself nevertheless feels nasty and divisive. The thought just breaks my heart.”

Fr. Padraic had been listening patiently, every now and then amending my impression of the Catholic view of Protestants with a kinder, gentler (more Irish) view, but at this point he let my difficulty stand.

“Then you’re not ready,” he stated simply and gently.

I was taken aback, and didn’t particularly like the answer. “I’m not ready just because the thought breaks my heart?” I asked dubiously.

“Yes,” he answered confidently, “because God is gentle.”

I chewed over his reasoning a bit. I could never imagine any of the pastors I had known giving this sort of statement to someone knocking at the door of a church wanting to come in.

“God is gentle,” he repeated. “He does not expect all of us to be St. Paul with a dramatic conversion experience that happens all at once. Those exist, but for most of us, conversion—whether that be the conversion from atheist to Christian or from Protestant to Catholic or from Catholic to... Catholic [he chuckled, thinking of his Irish flock]—is a journey. God knows your stamina, and will not ask for more than you are capable of.”

“But Fr. Padraic,” I protested, feeling surprisingly upset at his suggesting I might not be ready to do what he obviously thought was ultimately the right thing to do, “I don’t think the thought could ever not break my heart.”

He shrugged in his happy, Irish way. “Then it might not ever be time.”

I didn’t plan on posting this anecdote (I have no intention of turning my listening-blog into Em’s Catholic Adventures), but it has been stirring deeply in my spirit for the past six weeks since it happened, and applies to the broader scope of how I look at the entire journey of following God. Then last week when I met with the Monsignor of the church back home in the States where I attend, he told me more or less the same thing. Obedience, he insisted, is not enough if it is a mere begrudging obedience; obedience must be coupled with freedom and joy. And, lest I should go out and try to conjure up freedom and joy as if they are the next task on my journey, he insisted that they are the Holy Spirit’s work, and would come at whatever point he wanted. In the mean time, I could only wait.

It’s an entirely foreign picture of obedience for me. I always thought obedience was a matter of seeking out the right thing to do and doing it no matter what at any cost to oneself, believing that even if it was excruciating now it would be the best thing in the end. I never thought to question an action based on anything other than some Platonic notion of whether or not it seemed in keeping with the Good.

But for Fr. Padraic and the Monsignor alike, obedience seems to be something quite different, more passive than I would ever expect something active like obedience to be. Obedience, they seem to say, in my case involves seeking out the right thing to do and waiting for God to prepare the way. That looks almost entirely passive to a doer like me.

Might obedience be conjugated in the middle voice as well, like my seminarian friends suggested of faith over the summer? Might it be the Holy Spirit’s work, not my own?

Might it be, as Fr. Padraic had insisted to me repeatedly, that the almighty, holy God whom I have tried to follow relentlessly for 26 years... is gentle?