Wednesday, March 15, 2017

A Little Practical Magic

Last night, I attended a Lander City Council meeting; I've never been to a City Council meeting in any town, and always assumed it was a terrifyingly bland affair, with an incessant droning sound (either from speaking or snoring, maybe both) the prevalent background to various wall charts, faded flags, and pervasive wood paneling.

Well, there is wood paneling. And metal-sculpture Canadian geese in perpetual flight across the Wall behind a High Table-Podium with matching chairs, mics, and small, white, generic computers. Why do they all have to have uniformity? Is it some subtle rhetoric, saying, "We're really One Person"?

I tiptoe in just as the meeting is getting going, and sit next to an older, pretty lady, who has bright eyes twinkling behind window-pane glasses, and a cheery scarf around her neck. I know her, and she is a woman who enjoys tremendous respect from the town--partly because she can point out, to me, various Council members as former students of hers. "I taught him--and him--and her--English." I smile, and reply, "Well, when they see you, I bet they watch their P's and Q's. " She laughs lightly, but as one who knows how things work in Lander. The English Teacher and I remark in unison, "Those Canadian geese have red bows on their necks." The English Teacher surmises that they were Christmas decorations.

The Mayor, Mr. Del McOmie, enters, and taps the mic. "Hello, everyone.Welcome. Let's say The Pledge." We all say it, and as I did in school all those years ago, I hold back an "Amen" at the end. I always feel like we should say that, for some reason, but I'm sure The English Teacher wouldn't approve. I return to Earth, namely the wood-panel meeting, and I notice that along with the five City Council members and the Mayor up at the High Table,  there are, all along the north side of the room, lower, but with their own matching mics, the people who Make It Happen: City Clerk, City Attorney, Police Chief, Planning Commissioner, Fire Administrator, and one more important position I can't seem to remember. What I do notice is that these people all look like their jobs, in a particularly Wyoming way: the City Clerk looks like a mom who takes care of it all, her hair carefully curled; the City Attorney is tall and has sharp corners everywhere; the Police Chief is also tall, has piercing blue eyes, token black hair in the background of his head, and a scarf-bolo tie clipped in a tiny, sharp metal thing at the top. He fascinates me, because he smiles and is pleasant, but those sharp blue eyes tell you he'd be perfectly capable of shooting you or hauling you off if necessary. The Planning Commissioner has a symmetrical and intelligent face, and he leans forward and looks carefully at everyone; the Fire Administrator is a bulk-bulldog of a man who looks like he could take on, single-handed, the Platonic Form of Fire.

They all have this wonderful Wyoming combination of tough survival tactic married to joviality and kindness, as do the Council Members. The Council Members have names like Dan Hahn and Cade Maestas; Mr. Hahn wears a bolo tie and I keep seeing a ghost cowboy hat on his head.

As the meeting progresses, I notice that the Mayor has done things like walk a neighborhood before an ordinance change decision, looking at survey lines and talking to the people involved; he knows minute facts, and speaks forcefully a couple of times about remarks that infringe on private property rights or "the government tellin' people what to do." The business of the evening consists of mundane things from the viewpoint of the paper they are catalogued on for those in attendance, but when they are discussed by the Council, the Make It Happen panel, and the citizens who speak, I realize that these are little universes of importance to the people involved, and the City, a city this size, cares. There are little dramas played out, with ramifications for people's long-term homes, friendships, and the Common Good.

Just as I am enjoying the serious nature of the dramas, the Cat in the Hat walks in the door with a little older lady as a side-kick. He has on a weird plasticine mask that looks like it has just been taken out of storage in a boot in the back of someone's truck. I seriously wonder if this is a mass killer who will just let it loose once he gets his paw in the door, but then I remember the sharp-blue-eyed Police Chief and sit back happily to see what it is all about. The Cat and his lady come in and announce that they are presenting the Fire Administrator with a donation for his help with a reading literacy program.

I feel like two universes have collided until the lady asks the Council if she can share a personal story. "Sure," says the intrepid Mayor.

"Well, one of the highlights of my young--aha--life has been to be in the Cat's entourage; the Fire Department brought us to the elementary school in a fire truck, with the sirens going and the lights flashing! It was thrilling, and the children were thrilled, too."

"Wonderful," says the Mayor, "and thank you for your story. Wonderful. Can we know who is inside that Cat in the Hat costume?"

"Ooooh, nooo," says the Cat's lady.

General laughter all round.

Next, two men sidle up to the mic; they are wearing matching outfits: Jeans, red dress shirts, and vests. Oh, the vests. Black leather vests with skull bones and unintelligble numbers embroidered on the back, and near-on 100 various pins clicking and clanking on the front; I notice that one pin has a large red train track section dangling from it. The older man, with shoulder-length, taffy-smooth, white hair, strokes his mustache and gets ready to introduce himself. The younger man stands with his profile to us the entire time, staring at his older twin, who looks, I decide, like Mark Twain would look if he lived in Lander and cared less about things like traveling the world or the South. Analogous Mark Twain says, "We jus' wanna introduce ourselves," and he adds quickly, "we aren't bikers, so don't be worried about that! We are the Mining and Historical Society [I am not sure what he said] and we are interested in startin' a chapter here in Lander. We are going to put a plaque on the Forge buildin' and we invite ya'll down to see what we're all about."

The Mayor suddenly looks up with interest: "Ah, yeah, you know the upstairs of that building used to be the bowling alley."

A collective "Ah?" sounds lightly around the room. The Mayor continues, "Yep." With a subtle, sly look, he says, "And I could tell you some interestin' stories about that building..."

General laughter, because everyone knows that there is always something weird about that building. It is the nefarious Jar-Jar Binx of buildings in Lander. Analogous Mark Twain and his side kick bob a bow and politely sidle back to their seats.

Finally, there is a discussion about requiring sprinkler systems in all new construction. A citizen gets up at the mic, his work-a-day hands rough, his dungarees well-used. "Don't hold it against me 'cause I'm from California originally."

"We all know who you are," quips the Mayor, in the midst of jovial, good-natured, derisive laughter.

"Thanks," says the Work-A-Day man. "I just wanna say that I am against requirin' these things; I mean, if they're up in the roof, they'll freeze here. Creates a lot of problems. And besides," he says, looking sideways at the Fire Administrator, "we don't wanna put you guys outta business."

General laughter.

A request by Mr. Cade Maestas for additional fire and planning reports results in the Mayor saying to the Make It Happen panel, "Well, we just gave you guys some more work." In that moment, I realize that the citizens vote for the Council, and the Council directs the Make It Happen panel; these are the people who do, indeed, in a very real way, work for us, for the Common Good. In a humble, simple, brown way, without gold tassles or fireworks, these people carry out the will of the people; it isn't perfect, but I remember Montesquieu's contention that democracies and republics only work up to a certain size and it makes perfect sense to me, now. In a republic of Lander-size, the Mayor (if he or she is a good one) will walk the streets to see what's going on with an ordinance and stop by like a good neighbor and talk to the neighbors; a Council Member will take all day to visit my rhetoric classes and encourage young people to hone their speaking skills; the Make It Happen people seem like capable, open people of the ranges, silver and stone people with real hearts; they know they are known, and they seem tough enough and humble enough, for the most part, to be known. They do not live in ivory towers, except for the occasional towering Ford F250. They aren't perfect; Lander isn't perfect. I am simply surprised by a certain magic in the realm of Practical Intelligence.

"Well," says the Mayor, "let's give our votes. Remember we'll have two more readings on this. Dan?"












They all look back at Dan. Melinda laughs, and says, "What're you up to, Dan?"

Dan laughs, and everyone laughs. Dan says, "Well, I knew ya'll were gonna vote 'yes'."

General laughter.

Sunday, March 05, 2017

The Willing of Wisdom

"And out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Now the serpent was more subtle than any other wild creature that the Lord God had made..." (Genesis 2:9; 3:1).
"Then Satan answered the Lord, and said, Doth Job fear God for nought?
 Hast not thou made an hedge about him, and about his house, and about all that he hath on every side? thou hast blessed the work of his hands, and his substance is increased in the land.
 But put forth thine hand now, and touch all that he hath, and he will curse thee to thy face.
And the Lord said unto Satan, Behold, all that he hath is in thy power; only upon himself put not forth thine hand. So Satan went forth from the presence of the Lord" (Job 1:9-12). 
"Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!”
'Here I am,' he replied.
Then God said, 'Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you'" (Genesis 22: 1-2).
"Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil" (Matthew 4:1).

We are stewards, we are not masters; we are sub-creators, we are not the Creator; thus, we are tried and tested in the fires of temptation. We are sons, not slaves; thus, we are disciplined, not dominated. 
There are moments in the Holy Scriptures that move me, and not primarily rationally; I am slain in wholeness by these moments: sometimes in love, sometimes in awe. One of these moments is in the Garden, after Adam and Eve fall to the the serpent's solipsistic rhetoric, and their world, their souls, are shattered in a preemptive  knowledge reserved by their Father for Himself, perhaps for them also at the right time. In the lengthening of that brass day, the metallic taste of their choice raging in their mouths, they cower in the shadows: "And they heard the voice of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day...[a]nd the LORD God called unto Adam, and said unto him, Where art thou?" (Genesis 3:8; 3:9). 
The Lord brings His presence to them; I've always had the impression that this was normal, a part of each day. In the Middle East, and in Mediterranean countries, this "walking in the cool of the day" is a time in the later afternoon when the sun, his raging joy, his life-giving abundance finished, becomes a gentle presence, his gold now liquid like a calmed, early-summer stream after the snow-melt rush. This is the time of day for leisure, for the commerce between families and friends over a drink at the end of a work day that began in the very early hours of the morning. One has had a siesta, and this is the magical moment when people find each other again after an absence of sleep in a heat impossible to resist. 
The Lord finds them then, when they are meant to be rested and ready for conversation, as perhaps He did every day, in that jeweled pattern, that cool-wine-laden, patterned stream of life. Instead, He knows, and finds, that they are not rested. They are disturbed by death, by gluttony, by arrogance, by pride; their souls are bleeding, and He knows that they must now carry these wounds, and scars, into the generations, and that He will have to take on wounds, and scars, to heal them, finally. He knows all this. 
Yet, He comes as is His wont, and calls to them: "Where are you, my son, my daughter?" 
Every parent knows this know that something has happened to your child's will, to their soul, you know it well and the consequences it will bring, yet you do not rage into the shadows where they have hidden their soul from you in angst and shame. You call them: "Where are you, Ana? Where are you, Sophie? Where are you, TJ, my son?"
First come the denials, then the excuses; second, the silence; third, the tears. You want so much to erase it, to go backwards; but you know these tests are necessary. 
You know these tests are necessary. 
Why did God plant the tree, the temptation, in the garden with them; why did He allow the serpent to ply his pandering rhetoric; why did God allow Satan to test Job; why did God ask Abraham to go out into the wilderness and sacrifice his son; why did the Israelites have to be tested in Egypt and in the wilderness of Sinai? 
It has to do with desire, which is the foundation for virtue, for vice, for love; it is love, in a sense. The desires are appetites, which are, according to St. Thomas, a kind of will which moves towards objects of desire. We are bodily and spiritual creatures, or as the poet Bruce Cockburn quips, "Angel-beasts"; therefore, our desires are also bodily and spiritual, a kind of two-tiered, or twin-nature. Our knowledge is also different from the angels, from purely spiritual beings; we live in the body, in time and without that sight, as St. Augustine discusses, of beings in the eternal present, beyond time. 
Furthermore, our true happiness, or fulfillment, must come through our nature, as God made it thus. We receive this nature, and it is meant to be perfected in God, where the dual appetites will give Him a varied glory, different from other creations. It is the glory of beauty one finds in the variety of the flowers, in the very multitudinous aspects of sunlight throughout a single day, in the very varied veins in our beautiful bodies. He loved us, thought of us, and we were made: We are His, in our very bodily and rational and spiritual desires, our true happiness to give Him joy and glory. 
But we must desire this with all our varied being, our composite selves. We must desire it, for in love, He created us with free wills, so that we can also love; for, there is no deep, selfless love without a self, a self with a will to love. There is no love without desire. 
But physical appetite can become gluttony, with free will; mental appetite can become arrogance; spiritual appetite can become pride--because one can, using the will, turn the desire inward, and worship the self, or another creature, or another good. But the self, or another good besides the Good, cannot fulfill desire; these devolve into the slip-streams alongside the river where the water gets side-tracked and lost in a small place of stagnation and self-eating mold. All goods, even self, are only clear and healthy when they flow towards their true end, from their true end, the Source and End of all; for He is the source of all love, and all desire; thus is He also the End. 
Testing is a pattern with the Lord, right from our beginnings in that garden. He knows this is necessary to craft a creature as an Artist, to craft a creature capable of choosing rightly, a creature who understands the greater good as greater good, beyond the self, and yet chooses it. 
An essential part of healthy desire, or appetite, is the understanding of the lower as related to the higher. I find an abysmal difference between understanding and knowledge; Adam and Eve took from the Tree of Knowledge, but did not thereby gain understanding. They gained knowledge not meant for them and it wounded their souls. The Tree of Knowledge is a temptation: it is if God is asking, "Do you desire knowledge alone, apart from Me, or do you desire that which is related, but Higher, and always with Me and through Me? Do you desire knowledge or understanding?"
A few men and women chose understanding in the face of their own, lower knowledge, and the history of the Israelites, of Abraham and Sarah, of Moses, of the kings, of the prophets, is this story, its successes and failures. Sinai itself was a test of this: the great phenomenologist, Emanuel Levinas, images the moment at Sinai when the mountain towered over the Jews, when it suddenly was the navel of the cosmos, when they had before them the way of life and the way of death, when the Law was the mountain that would bring them to understanding, or the undigested knowledge of it would crush them.
And so, like the Israelites, the archetypal human community before Christ came, we each face this mountain, this tree, this parting of the ways, between knowledge apart from God, the knowledge that creates desires that ultimately enslave, and the understanding, or wisdom, that can only come from God and with God, the wisdom that creates right desire for all that is highest, and will ultimately free both soul and body.
We face this mountain toppling and the tree enticing and the emptiness of the crossroads, and wounded as we are, we cannot control our now revolutionary nature. 
An image rises, then, in God, another Thought, and it is also His Word, a Word ringing out from the eons outside of time, and is born in time; this image we find now sitting alone in the desert beyond the City of God, facing again that mountain. Christ is led, by the Spirit of God, His spirit also, into the wilderness. That same Satan, so eager to defeat Eve, and Job, rushes in like Herod half-dressed but with intentions sharp as knife-edge, to play the play again. 
St. Ambrose says, "See what weapons Christ uses to defeat the power of the devil. He does not use the almighty power he has as God--what help would that be to us? In his humanity he summons the help common to all--overlooking bodily hunger and seeking the word of God for nourishment. Whoever follows the Word is no longer attached to earthly bread, because he receives the bread of heaven and knows the divine is better that the human, the spiritual is better than the physical. Therefore, because such a person desires the true life, he looks for that which fortifies the heart by the means of its invisible substance" (On the Share of the Devil). 
Our Lord, Our Bridge, Our Sharer in Suffering, who is also Our God who walks in the cool of the day calling us back, has given us the power through His own suffering in our stead to choose understanding and thus to desire rightly, and thus to be truly happy. 
For this to be possible, He must go before us, and within us He must will it; for it to be love, we must follow him and also will it: this is the balance between faith and works, and it is our double-gift from God, it is our time of testing. 
Let the Psalmist have the last word:
"Behold, You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart...restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit...the sacrifice to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise" (Psalms 51:6, 12, 17). 

*painting by the Russian artist Ivan Kramskoi

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.