Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Relating to Death

"Somebody bubble-wrap David Attenborough"; "2016 is out to get us." I've seen variations of these fears, primarily on Facebook, variations multiplying as famous people fall, one after the other, like ninepins. And around us, in Common People Land, people--as always--are dying, disappearing through an opaque, black curtain.

"Death is a part of life." Um. Isn't it the opposite?

Last week, late at night, I passed out twice. The first time, I wondered why my eye was suddenly in sharp contact with the edge of the bathroom counter; the second time, I woke my daughter when I ricocheted off the wall. I need to lose some weight; I'd like to fall like a soft, quiet leaf, or like Ingrid Bergman sliding down elegantly on some Paris sidewalk in the rain. I bounced like a wrecking ball.

At any rate, in this rather minor way, I again looked at death. Death, that almost personified reality, has tapped on my shoulder a few times in the last ten years, has whispered sharply by my heart's ear. The first was a car accident that should have been fatal; the next, a miscarriage that could have been; the next, a prolonged illness, Death blowing in my ear slowly and persistently.

I related to Death like a person you want to avoid and narrowly succeed in doing so, like a warning for repentance, like a door you must go through, like a boxing opponent, like static electricity you must ionize away, like the final obstacle in the course, like a punishment.

Once, in the trailing anxiety of that mysterious, unknown illness, I opened the Bible and read about Hezekiah, the king who was "ill unto death" and asked God for healing; God healed him and gave him a few more years. I prayed this prayer, and indeed I was given a respite from the anxiety and suffering, from the maddening hum of death; but I have retained the trauma of those who've had health problems: life is never quite the same. It is sweeter, more precious; the gold of family and simple freedom is brighter--yet you are never allowed again that blessed ignorance of youth and health; you never again fill your lungs with golden air in that complete receptivity of confidence; you will never fly through life again unburdened by the knowledge of your absolute temporality in this life. You actually see, with the heart and the passions, people who are suffering, who are sick, who are now traveling that blood-soaked road, on which life flows out into deep ruts and cracks and uselessly waters parched dirt. You begin to notice Death less on the periphery, and more as a focused presence.

You see that some die in their relative innocence, young, or holy, or almost unknowingly; Death must come to them like a suitor who whisks them from the crowd and into the Great Dance; some innocents suffer greatly and must face a battle the biggest and bravest and wisest of us quail before: it is a mystery, and another face of Death we, left behind, must face.

I also, like many my age blessed enough to have living parents, see the shadow of death around my Dad and Mom. I remember my intrepid Dad, my china-lovely Mom, when they moved like whips and laughed like lions; now they are more like paper flowers, and I know I must begin to grieve now, even as I rejoice at every day they are given.

Death breaks your young child's heart.

So, in this year of many deaths, as the year itself was dying, I passed out and felt again my wings clipped by the knowledge that Death is still in my life. As I sat in the doctor's office, and at home with a little heart monitor on, I realized that I wanted a new relationship with Death. I needed a new relationship; there must be another kind. I thought of St. Aphonsius Ligouri, who said that we should meditate a little on our own death each day; I asked him what that was all about, because in my youth when I first heard that, my mawkish heart crooned in its ersatz wisdom, "Yes; of course." I did not know Death as well then; it was still a gate, a static thing that we somehow chose, a concept far removed from my burgeoning and dancing cells, a far-off second cousin I'd never met.

St. Alphonsius didn't say anything, but I felt heard and that my desire to relate differently to Death was a good one. I thought about Adam and Eve, suddenly putting themselves under the law of Death. Their young child-hearts were broken, too, when they found their son Abel with his head smashed in. They had to learn to relate to death, and they have had to learn it also through all their progeny through time.

But God is Good; He is Love. Any discipline He gives, whatever He allows, has Love behind it; I believe that our very temporality in the body is part of preparing a soul capable for eternity, that even Death serves the will of God. But how, how? When Death comes near, pat answers and rational thinking are blown about like leaves in the path of the wind; when Death whispers, all our strings come suddenly untied. The answer to this is not in the mind, but the heart--or rather, the heart and mind integrated. Death can only be related to well by the whole person: body, mind, and soul.

Listening to a talk on contemplative prayer tonight, I heard the words, "self-renunciation." The speaker said that this was our journey; it is a quest to leave ourselves behind, our ego, our little projections of self upon the world, our morbid, legion attachments and opens us up to the present moment, to God, so that we may, as the Orthodox so rightly put it, enter theosis. This is simply union with God. Unlike Buddhism, this Christian self-renunciation does not end in a subsumption into prime matter, or nothing; rather it is a fulfillment or a return to one's absolute Source, a kind of nostos, a kind of return to Ithaka, not the same Ithaka one left, but one's true home where every cell finally knows its name, is named, is loved as God loves Himself.

What does this self-renunciation mean, day to day? We come into this world with nothing that we have not received; the ensuing years, long or short, are moments of choice, fundamentally, about taking or giving, about fear or love. We learn early the lesson that everything, everything can be taken; our response to that is our journey. Some learn early that our very identity can be taken, warped, damaged, in a second; some learn slowly through small chips of the axe. As we age, we begin to decide if life is, at a basic level, cruel, a heedless parent who gives and then takes randomly. We grieve with each other, and as Aristotle puts it so well, we recoil in shock and pity at the horrors plaguing others; literature is basically how to deal with it via imitative artistry: we can look at the thievery of life as one looks at family life through a doll house, or a puppet show. We banter about Death from our cushioned theatre seats.

But Death is the final blow, the final thievery; or, perhaps, it is the final self-renunciation.

St. Aphonsius answered me through a speaker on contemplative prayer: we choose our relationship with Death, much the way we choose our relationship with Life; is it going to be about taking or giving, fear or love?

If we lived forever, as Adam and Eve expected for themselves, and we chose the way of taking, of fear, of the self isolated and fortressed from the needs of others, from God who, because He loves perfectly, desires complete union with each soul, each cell, what would be the result? What if we lived a life in which complete, utter, absolute self-renunciation was perpetually a choice, something we never necessarily had to face? What if we were never required to give--everything? We can, most of us, live our lives without ever having to give everything, to renounce it all: We can have friendships that are really more about our own egos; we can do jobs or serve others, or go to church, or marry, or have children, and have it all more-or-less serving our own, isolated image of ourselves.

But Death is much, much too powerful for our paper walls, our membrane-egos, our fancy or clear or erudite thinking skills, for our petty poetic genius, our fine clothes and accents, for our steely science. Death is like a tidal wave, or the inexorable glacier, or the torrent of a flash flood; Death is a fire no earthly water can quench. Death either takes everything, everything, or gives everything; there is no lukewarm middle-ground. It is the murderer's knife, or it is the sword of God.

I think about the Christian martyrs, ancient and contemporary, but especially I think about St. Lawrence, St. Edmund Campion,  St. Maria Goretti, and St. John Paul II. St. Lawrence met Death as a fire; he was roasted alive because he would not keep himself isolated, safe, from the consequences of his love for God. As he was roasted, as he was meeting Death, he said, "Turn me over. I think I am done on this side." He is now the patron saint of chefs. His relationship with Death was flippant and humorous, as is, delightfully, his patronage, because he had already given himself away to Love, completely; he had already died. St. Edmund Campion met Death as a knife that sliced out his bowels, and as a rope that hung him. He met it with open eyes, with a mind aware, with a heart already given away to God, to the Church, to those he served in secret as a priest in Reformation England. St. Maria met death as a knife in the hands of a lustful neighbor; her subsequent forgiveness became the catalyst for her murderer's own self-renunciation to Love. St. John Paul II met Death as a slowly encroaching guest, a warping in the cells, as a slow paralysis. He wore death like a t-shirt and became the icon for those who are in danger of being called 'burdens' and euthanized. He was able to wear Death, to embrace it like a guest for years, because he had given himself away already; there was nothing for Death to take. So, Death becomes a servant of God in the lives of those who have already learned its lesson, those who have looked upon Life on the Cross, and understood that Death itself is overcome by God's own absolute self-renunciation. Death then becomes the last, greatest, most beautiful shard of glass in the creation of a soul free of itself, and totally God's.

I am nowhere near self-renunciation; I still veer hourly into that way of taking, of fear, of self. I see now that Death is truly my final, severe mercy; if I do not totally renounce self before he arrives, he will invite me once more, and like a good doctor, he will do it regardless, and he knows I know that. So I will be culpable; either I will be a taker, taken, or a giver, given.

*The concept of "severe mercy" is taken from the profound book of the same name by Sheldon Vanaukan.

Saturday, November 05, 2016

The Lamb Amidst the Throne: A Definition of Leadership

The first true leader I experienced was my own father. He is not particularly articulate, and there are many people who know more about theology, science, or philosophy, or fundraising; fundamentally, however, he is a man given completely over to Christ, a man who learned his plethora of skills to seek the good of others, and a man who is truly humble. In the latter half of his career as a leader of international schools, he worked in Moscow, Denmark, and finally, at the United Nations, and lived in these sometimes contentious, even dangerous, environments as a leader of integrity, love, and humility; he left the institutions places growing into a single, communal vision, places of cooperation, clarity, and transparent ethics. He left people who were supported and loved into using their gifts in cooperation with others, and people who understood that their part, however small, was valued and essential, whose weaknesses were either tolerated, or purified. In his final mahogany-laden office on Wall Street, complete with a secret door to a conference room, he sat behind his desk most like a transitory, transcendent accidental, because he knew this was precisely what he was: a servant passing through...he most valued, though he is shy, his mornings greeting students and parents at the front door.

I first recognized my father as a leader in the raw and ancient environment of Afghanistan, when he was a young man leading a small mission school. He was passionate, and not always wise, but he had stellar mentors, men and women who were following the guidance of the Holy Spirit, people given over to service of others in Christ: in particular, Dr. and Mrs. Friesen, who started an eye hospital in Kabul, and Col. Norrish, who was an experienced British army leader, having served in difficult posts in India, and at the time he mentored my father, attached to the British Embassy in Kabul. Col. Norrish was a tall, gentle man with a loving heart and a will of steel, a will thankfully, evidently, given completely to Christ.

As I watched, over the years, my father struggle to gain true leadership, I watched the making of a true leader; he told me not long ago, as his wrinkled yet still solid hand handed me a ragged old book, small and yellow, "Christian Leadership by Col. Norrish" printed on it in that old, shaky print of the first part of the 20th century, that he learned leadership from love, experience, from disappointment, suffering, and from this book.

As we face an election between Caligula and Nero, as I look at the shattered politics in my country like windows bombed out, and as I contemplate my own experience living and working in Christian missions, I again turn in hope to Col. Norrish's pages. He begins: "Spiritual and competent leaders are our greatest need. To produce such men and women is the greatest contribution that any of us can make to the life and witness of the Church." This is as true today as it was when he wrote it in India in 1963; it is as true today as it was for the men struggling under the instability of Agamemnon, or Rome under the self-serving Julius Caesar, Byzantium under ego-filled Sultans and Crusaders; Christendom strangled under greed and self-will of Popes and misguided Reformers alike; churches under immoral pastors; apostolates under those who wish to make God's project according to their own image, often dishonestly, in the name of Christ.

The sad results above are too often because of this fallacy, pointed out by Col. Norrish: "It has been said that leaders are born, not made; but it is my belief that more leaders are made than were ever born. Most of us were born little tyrants, and if we were allowed our way, we would have become big ones. Leadership is largely a matter of training. It is a relative matter; our capacity grows with experience as we develop the qualities of leadership. For any task of Christian responsibility, we need, in due measure, the personal experience of the life and leadership of the Holy Spirit within."

Christ did not call 'born leaders.' He called a man to lead His body, Peter, who could at first not control his heart, sadly lacking in both humility and courage, who relied more on his own visions than those of God; he called Paul, an egotistical man of steel given over to his own fallible understanding of God. Peter and Paul were leaders made, tried, broken, crucified, in the school of the Lamb. Col. Norrish gives us, through Christ, the essential picture of a true leader--for there is no true leader not given over to Christ completely: "Leadership must be marked by the qualities that are a reversal of the world's values...the Christian leader must be willing to make himself of no reputation...Christ's rule is symbolized as the Lamb amidst the throne: a picture of supreme authority exercised in meekness of spirit." A true leader is vulnerable, like a Lamb, a person willing to be a sacrifice for the Good, possessing a sacrificed will amidst the authority of office; a true leader knows all too well the tendency to tyranny in all of us, especially those desires or visions which come not from the Holy Spirit, but from emotional needs, wounds, fears, or, conversely, pride and as one priest said, "an assumption that the letters after our name are more important that that is meant to go before, that which is the crown of the Christian: Saint." How many people have I known, myself included, who rely on relatively passing and paltry elements such as their education, their perennial status from elementary school as 'the smart kid' or 'the cool kid' or 'the charismatic kid.' All this must be stripped away, like gaudy paint, before a true leader is made.

In order to instruct on the identity of a true leader, Col. Norrish turns to the photographic negative: "Judas Iscariot is a terrible warning to us of undetected instability, a warning that spiritual privilege does not protect us against ultimate spiritual disaster. The reason? He failed to make the ultimate surrender to Christ. He was evidently a man of shrewd judgment; deep within the recesses of his personality he retained the fatal right to be the final arbiter in his own life...slowly, insidiously, he came under the power of the thing he loved most. None suspected it; he kept up appearances until the end--none save Jesus, who was 'troubled in spirit.' Christ must be supreme, or else He will be betrayed."

How do we recognize the true leader, or one in the making? When I was a less mature woman, I looked for those who were capable, or charismatic, or attractive to my emotional needs. I have since learned, like a surgeon, to look for the skeleton of the leader, the structure on which his or her life is built. I have found, to my surprise, that true leaders are often like that good old truck you rely on but find parked by the barn, or along the back street. They are not always attractive in a physical or worldly sense; they might have letters after their name, but you only learn it much later. Their offices are not shrines of certificates glorified or made imposing with the purpose, like Soviet statues, of making you feel small; when you have a conversation with true leaders, it doesn't feel like a vacuum is pulling everything towards their own ideas. Instead, they want you to proffer yours, and they simply work to see if it fits--not only with the vision, good, and mission of the institution, but with the vision, mission, and good of God. They are people whose threadbare egos point to the Lamb amidst the Throne. They don't drop names or revel in attention; in fact, they seek the shadows whenever possible, so they can simply get to work; yet they don't seek the shadows, or hide behind group decisions, to manipulate things for themselves or avoid responsibility. They don't make money off the institution or lie about others, even to 'protect the institution,' because they know that all dishonesty, or slander, or manipulation, does not fit with Christ, and will inevitably destroy the very institution they strive to, ostensibly, serve. They know that their character will shade the institution and inspire either true vision or a vision of disorder.

True leaders are servants. Christ said it clearly. Also, we see through the stories of Peter, Paul, and the saints that Christ uses our weaknesses, and so true leaders will be people who admit and show their weaknesses, in order to be leaders made in the image of Christ, as He wills, not little tyrants born.

Col. Norrish fills in the picture of the Lamb's leaders: those of spiritual maturity, faith, and those "living a spirit-filled life."  He begins with spiritual maturity: "'Not a novice' is a principle found in scripture. God will not appoint a leader who has not been tested...[He will appoint those] who are not self-willed or soon impatient; those who are kind and considerate to others (given to hospitality), not swayed by moods or temper, able and willing to help others to learn, not covetous of position or authority; above seeking personal gain; those with a balanced and impartial judgment..."

There is nothing, nothing, in Col. Norrish's humble book about being the smartest or the most popular, or the most liked. When I was a young teacher, a mentor came into my class to observe me. One comment she made, kindly but firmly, has stayed with me; I can still see her older face, tried and tested, willing to mold me in love, as she said quietly: "You don't teach them to like you; you teach them what is good, what is right, what is true, and what is beautiful." In other words, "Tami, get your ego out of the way." In the years since, I have assiduously fought this temptation, a wound I carry from childhood: the desire to be liked, to please others. I have watched other teachers do the same, from elementary school to college-level, though I think the temptation to both ego and guru-status grows in proportion to the level of education. I have learned, a little, that I must love my students: fundamentally, that means to wish their good. Period. Is it not the same with all leadership?

If one is liked, this is a good, but it can be a cover for weak leadership, a leadership which refuses to make the decisions that might create conflict or unpopularity. I saw a real leader once who gave up his own position, his livelihood, to protect those under him. It was like watching a colonel rushing out on an 18th century battlefield with the standard to call his men to safety and better position, and getting blown up in the process, the flag held up in a steeley, dying fist, to guide, to save, to lead. A leader, a real one, can admit he or she doesn't know something because his or her real authority is the Lord, who knows all. One can only be humble, truly, because of the riches of God; when not alone, ever, a leader can afford to face loneliness in hard decisions, in positions of leadership. A leader can lay down his life only because he has already died with Christ.

But the world often appoints those, like the Ancient Greeks, who have the most prowess, primarily; we often end up giving the reins of power to psychopathic types, even, because they tend to 'get things done' Machiavelli-like, but this is a short-term gain, and does not lead people into their true good: I have known people given leadership because they were polymaths, and seemed to have an answer for everything. This isn't bad in itself, but it is not the fundamental quality for the Lamb's leaders, and if it is the sole reason, it will most likely cause untold destruction in many lives. I have seen it.

Rather, along with spiritual maturity, and humility, Col. Norrish points to stability of character, integrity, discernment, faith, and love: A person with the stability that comes from a settled, undivided, not ego-offended, heart; a person who has the integrity shown by faithfulness in small things; a sign of this is often a willingness to show himself or herself to others, the real self: we express it in terms like "down to earth" or "real" or "there in all his warted reality." Beware those who look and feel like Ken and Barbie, or a plastic wall of image-mongering and perfection. Beware of those whose hair is too perfectly coiffed at all times; this may sound strange, but in this particularist vein, I have, for example, found some of the most telling remarks of wolves in sheep clothing from Julius Caesar's life as portrayed by Plutarch:

Cicero was the first who had any suspicions of his designs upon the government, and, as a good pilot is apprehensive of a storm when the sea is most smiling, saw the designing temper of the man through this disguise of good-humor and affability, and said, that in general, in all he did and undertook, he detected the ambition for absolute power, "but when I see his hair so carefully arranged, and observe him adjusting it with one finger, I cannot imagine it should enter into such a man's thoughts to subvert the Roman state."

Cicero, in his delightfully ironic way, tells us subtly that the small phenomena can tell us much, if we also look deep enough into a person's character. Furthermore, Caesar himself knew that small things can often be signpost for a deeper disposition, for Caesar, also in Plutarch, pinpoints the treachery in Cassius when he remarks to Antony that he fears, above all else, those with a 'lean, hungry look.' He was right. Beware also the person who has an image of humility,  the phony humble type my Italian mother-in-law used to call "a cafone," or a jerk posing as a slob: Beware, fundamentally, of a person who projects anything. This is often a clue to a fractured, egoistic, even narcissistic soul. In the end, people do, though with varying degrees of subtlety, display their soul: the truly, deeply bad man, the clever and cunning one, will often cover his badness in a plasticine perfection; the less-bad man will inadvertently show his badness in ugly, unrepented signals of pride, selfishness, and ego; the repentant man will look more like a carpet-man, worn and traveling and still in the making; the good man will have light shining through the tatters; the saint will simply disappear in the light of God, and one will, when leaving an encounter with a lamb like this, feel that one has left heaven, and will think of goodness, and God, will be inspired to serve likewise, will not think of the saint at all.

A true leader will be like Moses, who understood both his sin and his weaknesses well enough to beg off the throne to which God called him, a man who understood his humble place well enough to finally accept God's call and to follow God's vision--not his own--with the words, "Lord, show me Your way" (Exodus 33:13); like Moses, a true leader will be a man of faith who will understand Col. Norrish's exhortations: "Never doubt in the darkness what God has shown in the light" and "Where there is no vision, missions stagnate."

This vision--this vision, born of God, discerned only by the humble, integrated leader--is what a nascent  and mature leader must look towards, so that those in his care will tread the right path; I have seen too often, in apostolates, how the vision of God is lost in the clamour of those who have their own visions forefront in their hearts; good visions, perhaps, of a sort, but not the vision of God. To hunger, and thirst, as the deer for flowing streams, for the vision of God big and small, around a banquet table, or if necessary, within what appears as the trash of the world, is the mark of a true leader.  This ability to discern God amidst the conflicting or tempting phenomena of this world is a desire to serve that begins with the eyesight of Oedipus at Colonus, that Oedipus who blinded himself in repentance for his hubris, in imitation of the prophet who was blind but could see more truly, that Oedipus who gained a kind of holiness and true sight at the end of a long road of disappointment and ignominy, who gained a better leadership, though he could not yet reach a leadership that is only, truly fulfilled in imitation of the sacrificed Lamb amidst the Throne, the vision, of God: a vision that begins and ends in love of service, of the other, that love which drives out fear and ego and guru-status, that which demands no less than the perseverance, fortitude, and courage to spend one's life-blood in service of the Lamb Amidst the Throne.

Fr. Cizek, the Polish hero who served Christ in Siberian prisons, says it most bluntly: "Tell them to do God's will every day. Tell them to give God's will their lousy best."

Sunday, October 30, 2016


As the leaves in me begin to lose their green and begin to reveal the true colors of my heart, I too begin to be honest with myself, to see the meaning of each leaf, to call on the Lord, to beg Him to give me the gift of His sight, His light upon the leaves falling, the structure of the branches grown over decades, the soil I've rooted myself within.

Little by little, because I am little, He answers me.

I think back to the spring, that long spring flowing into the summer of my life, when I threw out branches to the different suns in my life, and then, through the storms, made choices to let branches and all their dependent leaves die; I thought I alone chose the direction of my growth, the structure of my tree: In some way, I did. I did, and the roots grew, but most often--young and flexible, hubristic and flamboyant--I was not aware of the deeper soils and the true sun beyond all the others flitting across the sky of my life.

Now, as my branches grow too tall for this garden, this world, now as my desires bend to be transplanted into the soil that never freezes, never fails, now as my desire is to live, forever green, in the place that needs no sun, because You are the light, I look with You at the tree I have become. I am full, and golden, and at times, deeply sad and deeply joyful all at once. These two co-exist in the fall of life, when You stand with me on the bridge between youth and old age.

I remember the suns I once reveled under, and how, mysteriously, I made the choice to turn from them, to seek beyond them, and I asked you for Your help. You moved me from a wild soil outside to the soil within Your walled garden, and I chafed, and still chafe, sometimes; sometimes, the branches within me bend to a faraway, long ago wind, and I ask you why you have given me these walls so that I cannot see the sea, and the watered air, full of colours I loved.

I see, through the years, younger trees than me, smaller, and more green, uprooted, taken, o'erleaping the walls of this life, and I wait, still rooted in the soil you've given me. I sometimes feel as if I want to grow beyond the wall; a leaf on a tiny branch peeks over towards the sound of water crashing, and my heart grieves the loss of summer, the losses of far-gone winds, suns, and soils; sometimes then you have pruned me and parched me.

Little by little, through my original replanting, and the on-going pruning and parching and watering with choice water, You are answering me.

You answered me when I called you when in the wild, on the cliffs by the sea, after losing all my leaves and most of my branches in the storms; you called me to Yourself when you called me to the garden in which I now grow. Within its limitations, its walls, its seasons and breezes, its rain and frozen months, here have I grown the fruit you knew I had within me; here have I, in times of pruning and growth, become what you called me, that which within me was your call calling to you.

Your garden, the garden you made for me, is my desert, my convent, my bridal bed, my threshing floor, my altar, my candle, my creation with You, the small place which is larger than the cosmos, because it contains You, within me. Each sadness, each narrowness, each pain, each joy, each child sitting on a branch, each love watering me, each storm, and the lengthening years adding concentric rings, is given meaning in the call You rang out, the answer You gave then, on a late summer's day so long ago in the wild along the stormy sea, the call still ringing out with layered tones now, a symphony of severe mercy and fiery love that draws me on.

Lord of Sky and Sea

Lord of the sky and sea,
Come air, water, fill me.
Lord of fire and earth,
Burned, buried in you is no dearth.
Lord of leviathans and tiny shellfish,
Blessings wild and small, all I wish,
Lord of beauty ornate and bare,
In you, with you, to become there,
Oh, Lord of all,
That in me which forth you call.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The trees are mostly green,
and yet the summer is dying;
in the soft, still, sultry breeze,
small branches
The breeze brings with it
a yellow leaf, careless of life;
in the writhing as it falls,
a last dance
Another summer comes,
out of death, but this death
must come;
the severing of a leaf
sets into motion
a grief, a sleep

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Oh...My Gosh...I'm a Hypocrite


Here's how it went: my husband and I have a revolving-door argument; he feels that I expect him to listen to my feelings and yet don't expect myself to hear about his. That's not exactly how I see things. I feel that I am being quite truthful and objective most of the time.

Finally he turned to me and said, "I am seriously accusing you of hypocrisy here."

I replied, "I am very hurt by this."

We parted ways in the kitchen, and I went to commiserate with God about how hurt I was, and began to read the Gospel readings for the day. Here was the reading, from Matthew:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and faith; these you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. 24 You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel! 25 "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you cleanse the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of extortion and rapacity. 26 You blind Pharisee! first cleanse the inside of the cup and of the plate, that the outside also may be clean.

Yes, I was a little shocked. It was as if the Lord stepped into the room and joined the conversation right where it left off. And I cried a little inside, saying to Him, "But I'm not lying when I say I feel that I am being truthful and objective. So how am I a hypocrite? Aren't hypocrites liars?"

I read on to the meditation below, and then I understood, and a flash of great light was shone on the error of my thoughts:

Do you allow any blind-spots to blur your vision of God's kingdom and his ways? Jesus went to the heart of the matter when he called the religious leaders of his day blind Pharisees and hypocrites! A hypocrite is an actor or imposter who says one thing but does the opposite or who puts on an outward appearance of doing good while inwardly clinging to wrong attitudes, selfish desires and ambitions, or bad intentions...they[scribes] were so exacting in their interpretations and in trying to live them out, that they had little time for much else...they were very attentive to minute matters of little importance, but they neglected to care for the needy and the weak. Jesus admonished them because their hearts were not right. They were filled with pride and contempt for others who were not like themselves. They put unnecessary burdens on others while neglecting to show charity...

I have a very exacting, logical side to my personality; I relish computations and ordering and symmetry. I could probably be a very good, happy accountant. I also have an artistic, hippy side and so I forget that the logical side, though good, can begin to take over if I forget what an ass I can be, if I forget my fallen state and that 'the devil is like a lion reading to devour' and that my pride is a major breach in the defenses.

Through wounding, or what my own birth family valued highly (order, politeness, exactness, along with fun and love), I failed to see who my husband is. I failed to see his desire for good, in my zealousness to wrestle with the logical or theological issue from a book we were discussing. I was paying attention to straining the ritually unclean gnats of inadequate or ambiguous language, and swalllowed the ritually unclean camel of total insensitivity and lack of charity towards another human being.

I understand now that hypocrisy is not really about lying, though it is in the end, a lie. It is about a heart that is itself a lie, that habitually misses the mark. I saw how full of sin I am, because does not St. Paul define sin, fundamentally, as "missing the mark"? As St. Thomas Aquinas says, none of us are doing things because we say, "Oh, good, that's really evil. I am going to do that." Instead, we have reasons why we think it is actually good, or we think actions are coming from a good intention, which they may well be; the real question is deeper than that:

Is our heart, the center of us, where actions come, set up so that we consistently hit the mark?

What is the mark?

God said it quite severely to me this morning. The mark is love. Not sentimental slop, but a true desire for the good of God, which encompasses the true good of others and myself. It is always lining up my good with God's will, God's good. And God's will is love first: the person comes first before the argument; the good of a human being before the good of being right. Being right, finding truth is good insofar as it is good for the other, ourselves, God. We cannot worship anything, anything, or anyone besides God by putting them out of the order of love.

Anything we do, any communication, must be in love if it is to really hit the mark; our hearts must be ordered to Christ's way, to Christ Himself, whom we must imitate.

After I apologized to my husband and everyone I could think of, I apologized to God, who told me in my heart that in apologizing sincerely and in being willing to see it, I was following His order of love and thus apologizing to Him. I went around singing, "I am a hypocrite" and feeling joy about it, because I could see it.

The worst thing is to be tied up in one's own thoughts and ideas so that seeing the truth inside is near-impossible; I now must find another way to think and to live, and I need help from others because it has been a working part of me so long, deep inside, that I don't know how to live another way, in practice. To love in practice, and not abstractly.

To avoid the camel by looking past the gnats, or loving past the gnats.

Monday, July 25, 2016

The Wild Goodness of Gaudi

Once I saw, out of the corner of my eye, a large book sitting on a table. Its cover was a detail-photograph of a roof-corner. I was caught immediately, like love at first sight. A detail of a roof was all it took to make me a life-long fan of Antoni Gaudi i Cornet, the genius-artist-ascetic whose vision lies behind the last truly great building project of modern times, La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. Sagrada, Gaudi's crowning work, and the last of this man who slowly became more and more determined to be only God's, is great because he saw a vision of the cult-center of Barcelona's true soul, that twin-love of their natural land and the Word who made it, and he submitted his great gifts to the truth that all truly great architecture--indeed, all great art--draws our souls back to their source, to each other, to the universal and common truths, to God. Indeed, Gaudi's work, as exemplified in La Sagrada, is a plastic (as in the sense of the 'plastic arts' such as architecture and sculpture) manifestation of the land and natural beauty that surrounds Barcelona, an ordered version of nature which is again moved, in concert, to its highest end, that of revealing the beauty, truth, and order of God. In other words, it is art imitating and re-ordering nature, and becoming itself a revelation of God. Gaudi's work helps human beings to see God poetically through nature, through art, again: to know, to receive in impressions upon the soul His fecundity, His wild goodness, His simple order within complexity, His extravagance of love.

Most importantly, La Sagrada brings nature again clearly under the ends to which she was originally created: as a Christian liturgy of sacrifice, love, fecundity, order, and beauty.

La Sagrada Familia, or just "Sagrada" as it is affectionately called, rises like the Montserrat mountains near Barcelona: not just figuratively 'rising' but rising, like the great dolmite-shaped, exposed bones of the mountain, the cathedral looks like the mountain; it is as if a section of the mountain was indeed moved by faith, echoing the promise of the Lord, and settled itself in the middle of Barcelona.

The inside of the cathedral is just as magnificent and seductive to the soul as is the view for the homecoming sailor watching for the glint of the ceramic-encrusted spires on a familiar, permanent mountain-shape. When one enters this mountain, one enters a forest of helicoid vaults and hyperboloid columns, shaped themselves along paraboloid lines with the vaults. It is a study in natural surfaces and planes, abstracted, yes, but distilling the essential shapes one finds in nature, distilling and ordering them.

Inside Sagrada, the mysterious watching and waiting, the escape from a work-a-day world that a natural forest provides, is experienced, but married to the Presence in the Tabernacle: the forest finds its end as mystery in the Mystery of the Eucharist; the liturgy of the trees, leaves changing color and with time falling and rising, the seasonal sound of the birds is re-ordered in the light falling through the stone, the liturgical vestments, the choir, the organ.

About the Church as an institution, and about art, Gaudi proclaimed, "The Church makes use of all the arts, both those involving space [architecture, sculpture, etc] and those involving time [poetry, music]; the liturgy offers us lessons in aesthetic refinement."

I believe Gaudi meant 'aesthetic refinement' in both senses of the adjective: both an appreciation or a recognition of beauty and an appreciation of the principles that underlie this beauty. 'Aesthetic refinement' can become impoverished when it is simply 'good taste' in terms of 'style' or an end in itself. At its highest levels, aesthetic refinement is a a soul able to see Beauty and the principles that underlie it: Truth, Order, Love. A true poet, a true soul, will recognize the highest level wherein Beauty is Truth is Love is Order. There, one has found also that these, in their oneness, are in fact not concepts, but a Person: Three Persons in One. Thus, the liturgy, an Art, is meant to form us in an appreciation of Beauty, Truth, Love, Order.

Gaudi saw this and incorporated it into his own art, and yet saw outside his own discipline deep connections in human nature and history contained in the liturgy: One is the dramatic action central to Christian life and liturgy and worship, the Holy Sacrifice. Gaudi saw that this had been foreshadowed in the ancient Greek tragedies, central to the religion and life of the Greeks. He said, "In the Mass there is a dialogue between the celebrant and choir, between priest and faithful; postures and movements are precise and correct; entreaties, blessings, and sermons pronounced...these are of the greatest plastic grandeur and beauty." For hundreds of years, probably millenia before the Incarnation, human beings have been doing the action of seeking, attempting to become again one with the Source, trying, in the words of Daniel O'Connor, "...to repair the relation between the acts of the past and eternity, to ensure that the present has the proper relation to eternity, and to prepare the future to have the proper relation to eternity, mystically taking it into ourselves." The drama of the Holy Sacrifice is the true expression of the culmination, the consummation of this drama, enacted over thousands of years; it is the expression of the Sacrifice of the Lamb in heaven, seen by St. John mystically in Revelations.

Gaudi also, as a deep Christian, understood that the Church's spiritual order takes precedence over any of the arts She employs. He related the story of an artist who asked that some especially beautifully-wrought Tabernacles be left uncovered so that they could be seen by the faithful. The Church denied this request, and the Tabernacles were left covered: the mystery is greater than the art, the soul greater than the liturgy or the vestments or even the church surrounding it. He knew that an re-ordering or relationship with eternity is a gift from God, a grace, and no human art, dramatic action, or logic can effect that. It is the Incarnation, Sacrifice, and Resurrection of Christ; it is the action of the Holy Spirit, the creation of God. In fine, we can only as artists and poets, imitate it, serve it, dispose others to receive it by first receiving it ourselves.

Gaudi was one of those rare Renaissance-like artists, like Da Vinci, able to produce poetry with logic as a tool; he was a myth-maker, a true poetry-creator, who understood in his sub-creation, 'where the Leviathan lies' or 'how the pelican feeds her young,' and yet also visualized, always, the wholeness of the thing. He did not let the details or the skeleton of the thing distract him or stop there as in many modern art pieces, but rather saw the revelation in it towards a final wholeness, a final revelation, which can only be seen by poetic wisdom. Gaudi said, "Sagacity is superior to science. The word comes from sapere which means to savour [to taste]; it refers to the fact. Wisdom is wealth, it is a treasure; science provides us with certainty about what we examine; it is required to keep counterfeit coins out of the treasure."

What is poetic wisdom? Daniel O'Connor, in his book The Crown and Completion of Sanctity on the writings of Luisa Piccaretta, speaks about poetic wisdom; though about her revelations, it is, I believe, analogically applicable to the work of Gaudi:

 G.K. Chesterton shared great insight when he said, “The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.”

Expect to feel overwhelmed if you take the approach of a logician; striving to master these revelations the same way you study the material in a textbook before the final exam of an important class. There are seemingly endless analogies, modes, explanations, applications, and so on. How they all fit together will not be readily apparent...I merely wish to encourage reading them with the approach of the poet, saying to yourself as you approach them, I will not worry about trying to memorize this or trying to categorize it according to how I already understand...I will simply read this for the same reason I listen to a beautiful symphony; to be spiritually built up by the impressions it leaves upon my soul rather than to methodically analyze it, writing down the succession of notes...

Trying to understand Gaudi's work only through logic does overwhelm, as is trying to understand God primarily through formulas, true though they might be. To understand the science and logic behind a flower, or a work of art, can either add to the wholeness and beauty within our understanding, or totally destroy it. It depends on which truth--the scientific or the poetic--is held as closer to the level of truth where Truth, Beauty, and Goodness become one.

The scientific method, or logical steps are important, but lower on the hierarchy of the soul than the poetic, as love is higher than knowledge: "If I have all knowledge, and have not love, I am nothing." Yet Gaudi said, "[The] procedure of trial and error is required by limited human intelligence. The bases of reason are the rule of three, mathematical proportion, syllogism." He used this sense of 'trial and error,' logical analysis, and a knowledge of mathematical principles to create the natural beauty of his structures: "Paraboloids, hyperboloids, and helicoids cause the incidence of light to vary constantly; they have a wealth of nuances of their own which does away with the need for decorating and modeling." Scientific knowledge and logic are thus, for human beings, essential knowledge that allows us to build towards truth, like the knowledge of structures, measures, and weights allows for a great building to rise; yet this knowledge is clearly not enough to create beauty that speaks of that higher Beauty: "Work grows out of cooperation, and this can only be based on love; that is why those who have the seed of hatred within them must be set apart," Gaudi said.

True art, true poetry, whether it is found in the action of the drama, the words of the writer, or the plastic representation of the architect or sculptor, or the aesthetic sermon of the liturgy, and which we are all called through wonder to sub-create or to be formed by, allows Beauty, Truth, Love, Order to enter within us. The experience of true poetry and art is the far cry, clear and luminous, of the Lover who seeks us; the creation of it is our response, our submission of ourselves to Him; we become formed into our true selves either through receiving or giving true art, the art which has its source and end in God.

Sunday, July 03, 2016

Baking and Boasting

I love The Great British Bake Off.

Weird, because I can't bake, and I can't even eat the stuff they make on the show, mouth-watering as it is; you see, I can't have dairy, any grains, or nuts. So baking, unless it is some alternative that smells kind of good and then, kind of, suspiciously, like chickpeas, is pretty much out. So am I living vicariously, or torturing myself? Are my thighs safe from the delectables because they are electronic signals and colored pixels and in the past? No, because as a result of watching I always get tea in a pot with a nice china cup and eat the chickpea crap anyway; I fall to temptation in the way that I can. With chickpeas, I always get a stomachache, too. No one except a fallen-archangel type can look at petit-fours and choux-buns for an hour without going for the fridge.

Really, it has nothing to do with the delectables. But I am living vicariously, in another way.

The Great British Bake-Off is about the best amateur baker, and about a craft. There is no million-pound prize, as far as I know, or book deal, unless accidental after the fact. There is no twenty-something sex pot pandering brand names; the hosts are two delightful thirty or forty-something women who are--gasp--intelligent, funny, compassionate, and not particularly stunning visually. There is a simple tent and there are friendships forged, and emotional melt-downs which get mopped up with the help of others, even fellow competitors. There are bakers who will say, "I'd rather Ian and I both do medium-well than for him to totally fail. He can use my oven, too" (when opening the oven means the final product will potentially deflate-- "gasp"). There are nicknames developed affectionately over time, and a judge who is in her 80s and respected for her knowledge and person pairing up with yes--Paul Hollywood, a master-baker who isn't afraid to just be a man; there are humble back stories, and apparently, real sorrow and sensitivity when a baker must leave the show. There is sometimes plain honesty softened by well-chosen words and an ultimate atmosphere that says, even to the less-than-best, "you are one of us." The winning is not the main attraction: it is the community forged around a love of a craft. There are normal people excited about the art, and there is a level of relational art--the art of courtesy--that we Americans only dream about.

I was recently reading about the show, and was interested to find that Paul Hollywood and Co. had tried a Great American Bake-Off: it didn't work, because American viewers said, "It seems really phony." What was being referred to seems to have been the balance between camaraderie and competition; could Americans simply not believe in something more about the art, and ultimately, the community, than the baking king taking over the cake mountain?

I am only part American. I am really a third-culture person, which means I live in something of a cultural limbo, a place between cultures. My parents' home culture is American, but I am partly Afghan, partly Greek, and yet not these either. My pre-school and kindergarten was British, and first and second grade Greek, and so it goes.The result of this is that I have a hybrid inside-outside view of American culture, which means I'm not really inside it. This gives me a unique view, a kind of bird's eye view, which may mean I don't see some things correctly, but others I see quite clearly.

American competition is one thing I see clearly. My feelings about the typical American community are like the feelings one has about a knife-edge: you can see it cuts really well and you can really do some good work together, but it must be handled carefully, and there's never anything close to a womb-like feeling of belonging or unconditional acceptance and support. We belong in the sense of how we relate to the best, or the most innovative, or the bravest, or the strongest, or to someone who stands out in some way or another. Independence seems to be the catch-word. The community is often a spring-board for fancy moves, not an end in itself.

Maybe I sound jaded or cynical.

But ask yourself: whom does your typical American community value most highly? The person who innovates really good solutions or makes a lot of money, or the person who seeks no credit, is unknown, but brings people together, who serves? The young or the old?

If I am right, and you are American, you chose the individual innovator, the entrepreneur, and the young; it is not like this everywhere in the world. There are cultures in the world who value much more highly wisdom of experience and the collaborator, the follower; there are cultures who see a different end of community than material or political or athletic success. Do these cultures have their own problems? Yes. I know Greece a little, having loved it, and I see with sadness that the high value on communal living, just being, and on family can turn into nepotism and disarray. In Canada, and Australia, two places I've lived briefly, students in class will not answer questions because of the 'tall poppy syndrome' (everyone wants to cut down an inordinately tall poppy so the focus is on the nice grouping). But what about a culture that values winning, independence, more than anything else?

Winning and independence are goods, but not the highest goods. When 'winning' boils over the proper boundaries, it can seep into places and communities where it simply does not belong. Even sports--everyone knows well the rabid, mouth-frothing coach who thinks it good to scream threats at players: but, you say, this is Little League. No matter! Win! Win! Teach them early that it's a tough world out there!!! Even if the world, actually, is not a baseball field. Truly.

"No. Baseball is life."

"You mean 'baseball can be a metaphor for life,' don't you--which, by the way, I don't agree with--"


What about a medical community? Is it about being the star doctor?

What about an educational community? Should we make sure our teachers are up to scratch by having them compete with each other through peer and student evaluations?

Do either of these examples strike you as really problematic; do they strike you as having one value, winning, which very probably will undermine the true goal of the community?

The end of a medical community is health of the body of an actual person. What a far ways our mainstream, Western medical community has come from the receptive, personal, wholistic Hippocrates. Or is the end of medicine innovative science? Science is an important, essential, good element of a medical community, but not its 'final end.' When I say ' final end' I mean the primary, ultimate purpose. Like the north star on a voyage, this must always be kept in sight, or the ship, the community, will wander, get lost, and perhaps founder. The whole person must be taken into account, the soul and mind, but the medical community has a sub-end which it must keep an eye on primarily: the health of the body of the individual person who is part of a community. The medical community must also know, through seeing its own end within a Whole, a Tao, that its end is always subordinate to the end of the enfleshed soul.

For the educational community, the end is health of soul, a higher end than that of the medical community and an end it has in common with the Church; for when we educate a human being, we cannot parse him or her out into separate bits: education will, whether we intend it or not, form the entire person. What is 'health' of soul? Socrates calls it 'justice' and defines justice as a kind of harmony, akin to music. The parts of the soul must be balanced--the spirited part, the rational part, the spiritual part, even the part that is most connected to the body: the passions.

So if the end of education is the health of the person's soul, should teachers of different disciplines be competing with each other? What does it actually mean to be the best, or 'winning-est' teacher of a human soul?

It is very, very rare to have one teacher who can effectively teach all parts of the human being; we are deep, complex creatures, enfleshed souls who live in a world of myriad challenges and beauties. We must begin to travel towards balance, towards the simple Good through different skills, sciences, disciplines--it requires different methods and people to begin to create a unity of disparate parts. As a teacher myself, of twenty-odd years, now, I know very well that I cannot be all things to all students. Therefore, different teachers are needed for the same student, over many years.

Imagine teachers as a soccer team, or a chef's team, or a team of doctors and nurses in an operating room. What would happen if the goalie started competing with the defense, or the sous-chef with kitchen-help, or the doctors with the nurses or each other? The game would be lost, the food spoiled, the patient probably dead.

To me, 'community' is beyond a team, with a much higher end than 'winning' or 'survival', with the focus on communion for an end proper to the activity or essence. There is a reason why we don't root for the Seattle Seahawk Community.  Beyond the proximate end of the sports team which I would argue is not winning but rather practice in virtue, isn't 'winning' a branch of survival of the fittest, or just pure survival? It does have a good purpose, if subordinated to a higher end, like overcoming temptation for the sake of salvation or beating a terrible disease for the sake of health; but if ever an end in itself, 'winning' makes animals or demons of us all.

Teachers really should be helping each other, encouraging each other, not trying to be stars. And, if you put 'Christ-follower' into the mix, the emphasis we should see is teachers serving each other: "If you want to follow me, you must serve; become the least for the sake of others." It struck me today with force, this saying I've heard without hearing it for many years, from St. Paul: "May I never boast except in the cross of Christ."

I let these words sink in today. Never boasting, not even paying attention to winning, only to the cross of Christ. That is incredibly radical, and it is the beginning of a community not turned in upon itself, but upon not only serving without credit, but becoming the scapegoat, if necessary, to win salvation, through Christ, for others. Now that's a community.