August 17, 2012
I see a world not perfect but very, very good. Where the questions of immigration and exit visas and of asylum and refugee camps are not taking up time in discussions of governing bodies. Because national borders are a thing of the past. People come to a place and settle where they wish, and there they make their families. Neighbors by choice and tradition in the global village that’s no longer a metaphor.
I see a world where race and ethnicity, gender and orientation, heritage and roots have so mixed and intertwined that, should someone begin to divide humanity into his own and Other, crowds and crowds of every shape and shade of every color will rise more in astonishment than in hostility to stare him down until his shame turns into guilt.
I see a world where teachers teach and healers heal, where saviors save and leaders lead, full of responsibility but free from fear and greed. In this world, where important things are important, no goods are hoarded, no talents are wasted, no lives are destroyed by indifference. No teenager choosing a path in life thinks of picking up a weapon.
In this world that I see, “being better” and “making better” are understood as one and the same, and so — together — we dare. And no one is alone in a crowd.
Writers, philosophers call this Utopia. Marxists call this Communism. Christians call this the Kingdom of God on Earth. This is the world we will make when we stop fighting ourselves and tune into the soundform of the Universe – when we hear our melody and our name in the whisper of the wind as the ancient rishis heard Sanskrit. We too are the soundform of the Universe, but to live our nature we must be in harmony with it.
We are not ready yet. We discern a chord here and a note there — more, perhaps, as time passes, but not yet. We cannot sing along, vibrate along with the strings that hold all things together.
Still… I can almost hear it. I can almost – almost – see it.
August 7, 2012
It is here, in the middle, in the world of twilights, dawns, and dusks, that we see differences and shapes and navigate by them. We live in the middle world of shades of gray and of colors, where they collide and swirl, so that we find our way between brown and pink and yellowish and reddish, between darker and lighter, and we find comfort in one and threat in another, and we call some brothers and others strangers.
But even here, where shades of gray collide and create violence, there come about times and places and states of being when it all dissolves for a moment — patches of intense whiteness or of thick darkness — tastes of shadelessness. Bliss or despair. When nothing else matters.
Because at the gates of Heaven or in the pit of Hell — in the blinding light or in the pitch black — we all appear the same: we don’t.
July 22, 2012
Many cultures and religious traditions throughout history have discovered fasting of the body to be of spiritual value. We are now at the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan on the Islamic calendar, when Muslims all over the world fast from sunrise to sunset, abstaining from food, water, and sex. Especially challenging when it falls on summertime because of heat and long days, Ramadan is the time of acute awareness in contemplation, prayer, and charity, of deepening one’s relationship with God. It is a daily gesture of sacrifice, an exercise in self-control, a cleansing of body and spirit, an opportunity to heighten one’s empathy with those who must go without.
I love all these aspects of Ramadan, but I have a special warm place in my heart for its, you might say, “community-building” intention. Because in most places, after a long day of fasting filled with work and prayer, with their hearts renewed, fatigued and happy, people come together at sunset to break their fast for an iftar meal. At the end of each day on Ramadan, families and communities and neighborhoods come together for a feast — and they celebrate. Can you imagine this? What can be more ecstatic than the coolness of water after fourteen hours of dry heat? What can be sweeter than the aromas and the tastes of the best foods prepared together by the hands of our loved ones in joyous anticipation, to be shared in a large and loud crowd, music and laughter and all?
The unique gift of Ramadan — among its other gifts — is in the balance of the day spent in reflection, alone with God even as we walk about our lives, and of the evening of community of brothers and sisters who have done the same walk during the day, coming together over food, in the most ancient human way of embracing unity among human beings, to celebrate the triumph of the spirit, the triumph of the Good. The triumph of Love.
Ramadan Kareem, everyone! Ramadan Mubarak!
Blessed and happy Ramadan.
July 12, 2012
I remember the first poem I ever wrote. In Russian, of course. I was in some early grade — third, maybe fourth, in the middle of class, I don’t remember what subject. But I remember that we were engaged in a written assignment which I’d finished so early that the teacher didn’t know what to do with me, and she told me to go back to my seat and write a poem. I didn’t know what to write about, so I fished around in my head and pulled out whatever felt good. Whatever was right.
I remember that poem — by heart. It wasn’t long. It spanned two stanza and eight lines of perfect rhyme and meter. It was laughable and childish, entirely naive in its complete transparency: everything I meant I said exactly as I meant it, and it was meant by a loved nine-year-old. There is no depth to it and no complexity. It’s utterly simple. I thought I would have forgotten it by now.
I’ve never made an effort to remember it, but every time I call it to mind it comes without fail. Eight lines about a walk through the wood, oaks and birches watching over the journey. It says that the oaks, the birches, and I are happy together. That’s all.
I don’t know what made me think of it today — maybe the morning I spent in silence — but today, when I did, though I still smiled condescendingly at my nine-year-old self, her pitiful little lines didn’t seem quite so laughable. It almost feels as if I’ve come full circle, after three decades, to an ability to let go from time to time of underlying meaning and be left only with one — immediate — Meaning. Identity of surface and substance. Simplicity. Silence. In which a walk through a wood is a walk through a wood, and its happiness is just that, and it runs bottomless deep.
I think maybe it was my most perfect poem.
July 10, 2012
Contemplation… Of all the things human beings do that look like doing nothing, it is the most exhausting.
July 7, 2012
There is a profound truth underlying what has become a pat phrase in our culture: “You can’t take care of others if you don’t take care of yourself.” It is often used as a consolation for putting ourselves first, but beyond the apparent self-centeredness of it is the awareness of the interconnectedness of all things, of the ultimate balance of the living network, and of the nature of service. If the two halves of the statement are never divorced from one another.
We are born to serve – to serve the world, from the nearest to us, directly, to the far-reaching and indescribable, by implication and reverberation. But we serve only by virtue of what and who we are. We can give only what we have to give. And we, too, are part of that world.
And so, we improve the world in part by improving ourselves. Our thoughts refined by education, our emotions fed by joy and love, our action made possible by health radiate into the world and come back to feed us through the all-encompassing network of existence.
Blossoming to the fullest of our being and passing on that fullness to those around us – perhaps, that’s ultimate service, two inseparable aspects of one process. Mutual. Simultaneous. Not self-centered – service-centered, after all.
July 6, 2012
I do not see how any sufficiently abstract monotheistic theology can remain strictly transcendent. Because if God is infinite, He cannot be limited by the finitude of our being, can He? Not by the margins of physical reality or by the boundaries of Creation. He cannot be kept out by them. How can anything NOT be somehow divine, not have divine nature? If God is omnipresent, He must be present in us, too. In everything. We are Him.
But if we are Him, then He is us, as well. Christianity believes that Jesus of Nazareth brought humanity to fullness through being as humanity was intended by God to be – sinless, in harmony with divinity, as it will be on the last day — and that is why, upon death, he was revealed in full glory and splendor as that which the rest of the universe is still creating itself to become, waiting to be at the end of time — to join him in full humanity and in full divinity as and because they converge in eternity properly into one. That is why, upon his death, the face of God and His hand and voice and heart became enriched by those of the man Jesus.
In Christian terms, the preexistent Son Logos lives a human life and dies a human death and changes humanity and is changed by it and becomes Jesus Christ the Son, and God acquires a human face.
Am I saying that God changed?
Yes, I think I am. Too often, I think, we mistake the assurance of God’s constancy for His unchangeability. God is not Aristotle’s immovable mover or any of the Greek ideas of perfection — still and fixed — because, if nothing else, by the virtue of being present in and involved with the world, God is changing with the world. God is fluid. God is living. God, after all, has a human face. Most likely more than one. Most likely not just human. The whole point of the temporal universe is change that flows back into Him.
God changes. We change. Our conceptions of God change. Our relationship with Him changes. I turn back and look at the direct line of my ancestry. They had loved God even 2,500 years ago. But I am IN love with Him today. They had worshipped at His footstool. I touch my lips to Him. They had studied His Word. I remember His words. Call it the splintering of religions. Call it interpretation, exploration, search for meaning. Call it yet another change.
July 2, 2012
Here are a few words chosen from Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation. Thomas Merton and I have some peculiar similarities in our paths: both converts to Catholicism, hearers of the call to religious life, writers, and mystics. I find that, as with most other mystics, I deeply agree with him on much. And as with most others who lived in different times, I disagree with him on much. Mostly our differences seem to stem from two related factors so far: he lived most of his life in the pre-Vatican II Church, and he was a somewhat cloistered contemplative who thought of “the world” as the source of all things distracting us from God. Oh, and he was famous. That’s not a relevant difference. It’s just a difference.
Merton is a major part of my doctoral work, so we’ll be walking together for a while, he and I. You, my friends, will likely hear more about him, from him, and maybe even against him. But for now, to start with, here is a thought where Thomas Merton and Maria Catherine profoundly agree:
“Our discovery of God is, in a way, God’s discovery of us. … We only know Him in so far as we are known by Him, and our contemplation of Him is a participation in His contemplation of Himself. … It is true that God knows Himself in all the things that exist. He sees them, and it is because He sees them that they exist. It is because He loves them that they are good. His love in them is their intrinsic goodness.”
(Merton, Thomas. New Seeds of Contemplation. Intro by Sue Monk Kidd. New Directions Paperbook; 2007. Pp. 39-40.)
June 29, 2012
I was struck just now — not for the first time — by the complementarity of the large and the small in our lives. In this case, large and small efforts. Large and small parts.
I spent most of the last week shut up as much as possible within my room, under the flood of furious forces and epic ideas, of drama enduring through millennia, writing the story of Samson and Delilah. It is now finished, and after putting down the last period I felt, as I always do, exhausted and spent as if the whole of existence had rushed through me in a mighty stream, like unleashed water that breaks through a dam, filling the valley beneath and now a full and glassy lake. I felt the sole channel of something enormous. I still, sort of, do. For a while Samson and Delilah will live inside me in an immediate way and churn the stuff of scales unfathomable.
But tonight, Nuns on the Bus have come to Philly, and I am volunteering to help. It’s a different thing entirely. Though, is it? I will stand between a parking lot and the building where the event will take place, with a sign, and direct traffic. I will point people in the right direction, to a good thing. It will be hot, and I endure heat better than most. It’s a good fit that I should be doing it. It’s a tiny, tiny part for me to play in a small and noble effort on the scale of Creation. It’s important.
June 26, 2012
Fourteen things to do because I think they make life better:
1. On the road, let people in, in front of you.
3. Turn on the music when you wake up.
4. Read a poem before going to sleep.
5. When offered, accept help even if you don’t need it.
6. Tell friends they can come over.
7. Open your windows.
8. Sweat profusely, then take a shower.
9. Wait until you’re hungry, then eat the food you like.
10. Get your hair wet in the rain.
11. Talk to your neighbors.
12. Do something without pay.
13. Tell a joke.
14. Dance like nobody’s watching.
June 14, 2012
When I first realized that the battle between the Vatican and the LCWR had become bitter (for a bit of background on this, see the post “On Unregulated Grace”), I began to shuttle from emotion to emotion, with sadness, worry, resentment, and hope recurring at regular intervals. The Magisterium’s frequent actions against this and another Catholic ally in America (such as reprimands of feminist theologians like Elizabeth Johnson and Sr. Margaret Farley or increasing pressure upon Catholic colleges to have their theology faculty approved by the Church) only increased my range of emotion.
I was never hopeless, but some of my hope seemed unfocused, some long-term, and some sounded at times like wishful thinking. “There is always good in every bad,” I said. Something will come of this — something good.
I knew it was true — if my story is not an example, I don’t know what is. But history is full of tragedies whose good will never measure up to their evil in any concrete, visible terms. Not what we can see. At least, not soon enough. So what I was saying seemed, perhaps…like a consolation in the absence of anything real to say.
But here it is. I believe it is happening now. The good that’s coming out of the bad which is the hard and uncertain conflict in the Church. It’s happening because the conflict got THIS BAD — media exposure. Mainstream media, mass media, more and more, wider and wider. Newspapers, magazines, blogs, websites, news programs, political commentary. Two days ago Steven Colbert had Sr. Simone Campbell from Network on his show for an interview.
(Watch the interview and find the preceding sketch at http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/415112/june-11-2012/radical-feminist-nuns—simone-campbell?xrs=share_copy)
What is good about a media storm? Information. I have students in my classes who have effectively left the Church because they think the Church is the Vatican and there is nothing else. They think we are a monolith that follows a rigid set of pronouncements from a throne. I had a student whose pre-teen child was told once by some priest who should not be allowed to work with people that the boy was going to Hell. This woman was so shocked to find out that there are progressive Catholics in existence that she hugged me.
A media storm is not the first resort, but it’s what we have left. People need to know that there are tens of thousands of American nuns who are less interested in pronouncements than they are in love. Who take a corporate stand for ministry to homosexuals and heterosexuals alike. Who spend less time promoting doctrine on abortion or premarital sex and more time helping terrified young women faced with its reality.
This is a beginning. People who know we exist might realize that a parish exists where they will feel welcome. Someone might stay and fight to make a better Church rather than leave the Church in resentment.
This is a voice. A media storm is never pretty, and there is always a push-back. But it’s what we have.
June 11, 2012
What is humility?
When people say, “He thinks he’s so special,” they think that “he” lacks humility. Maybe, he does. But this is not enough for me to know. We often equate humility with an unwillingness to take credit or a willingness to share credit, with a tendency to underestimate one’s contribution, with bearing stoically a lack of homage or luxury that one is due because of wealth or status. But all of these are somehow connected to outward demonstrations of humility, if that’s even what it is. What underlies them?
I’ve struggled with the concept for a while — struggling still at times — and I’ve asked people I admire, who have devoted their lives largely to contemplation of virtue, for their understandings of humility. Some say that humility is truth. I agree, but that’s too general. Only lie is not truth. It doesn’t help. Some begin by cautioning me against confusing humility with false humility, which is essentially an inability to take a compliment. A denial we don’t mean. That, of course, also makes it a lie. This helps. One person said a beautiful thing about humility: “It’s knowing who you are and what you’re for.” Bit by bit, I’ve gathered what I now hold as my fluid definition. It’s a work in progress, but here it goes:
In other, more colloquial, words, if you think that being better at something makes you better than someone, you probably lack humility. But realizing that we possess our unique gifts and that you indeed are special in what you are while others around you are as well, you then are free to love without liking or being liked, free to be the best you know you can be, free to lead and to follow with dignity and with respect. Because every aspect of you, every gift, every talent and skill is your humble contribution to the whole of Creation.
I often hear honorees, after receiving prestigious awards, with tears in their eyes, say that theirs is a humbling experience. I always wonder what they mean by that.
June 10, 2012
Back in Soviet Russia, when I was in 8th grade, a teacher of mine once explained friendship to me. “I know who my friends are,” she said. “I know they are my friends when I am sure that, when they are in trouble and in need, they won’t forget to call me for help.”
I was raised with a concept of friendship. An understanding of what a friend is: a comrade in life and, if necessary, in arms. A brother or sister no matter what. Someone with whom you would go behind enemy lines. Into whose hands you would place your life, your family’s, your country’s. Someone who knows, understands, and shares your cause, your most fundamental priorities. Someone who will be there on a moment’s notice should you stumble on your way — and someone who assumes that, should he stumble, you’ll be there.
June 8, 2012
Sometimes I doubt that the impact of what I do is commensurate with its effort. I know I have an impact — and in teaching, long-term impact is impossible truly to judge — but in a certain classroom I get a partly articulable and measurable, partly ineffable sense that only very few of my students either want or in the end accept what I offer them. Yet teaching is more than a job — it takes so much time, so much labor, so much care and space in my heart and nervous energy that it leaves little room for other things I feel deeply called to do. Even for writing. Even for other service. Even for prayer. Is it worth it? Am I spending my energies on the right ministry?
This evening, without planning to, I spent at a local bar. I was passing by on my way home, and the music coming from inside called me to come in. They were hosting a small local band playing covers of mixed genre, from the blues to The Grateful Dead. They were wonderful. I listened, I screamed and whistled, I danced my heart out. I contorted with the solos that pulled strings out of my soul.
During the break, the band stepped down and got their drinks and then came over to where I stood, all three of them. They came to tell me how much they enjoyed watching me dance to their music. I told them how much I loved them. We talked about this and that and classical piano. Before going back to the stand, they thanked me. They said, “Even if one person enjoys it this much, our night is made.” Or something like that.
(The name of the band is The Don Evans Band. If you love the blues and soul and rock and sliding tone and perfect balance and blood-pumping beat, I think you might want to visit their webpage: www.donevansband.com. Then you’re lucky if you’re local.)
June 7, 2012
Holy… It is such an ethereal word. We know what it means, and yet we don’t. We pick up our hymnal and sing, “Only You are holy, O Lord.” Then we part our lips and say that we believe in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. We open the scripture and ponder the call explicit to us in its pages: the call to be holy.
What does it mean? Holiness. It’s a word. I read explorations of its roots, etymological and historical. Holy means “whole.” Holistic. Complete in one’s nature. Holy means “separate.” Sacred. A concept growing out of ancient ideas of unapproachable taboo. These are fine explanations, and I like them all – they all are relevant in their various contexts and educational, but they are, I feel, insufficient to help us understand what we mean when we say this word. Here. Now. To help us taste it when it drops from our lips. To help us comprehend its grandeur and its confusion.
If God is holy, can anything else be?
If God is holy, can anything else be not?
Many, especially my students, have asked me if “holy” means “perfect.” Perfectly good. It seems to be the most common feeling, and it makes for an uncomfortable creed. And it makes for a futile effort to answer the call of scripture. It’s a loaded word.
I have found a way that reconciles me to this word. One way. One sense that lets me sing the hymn and say the creed and live the call and feel at peace with it. If “holy” means “godly.” Of God. Reaching for God. Turned toward God. Touching God. Belonging to God. Of one nature with God.
Then, God is holy. And the sky is holy. And this tortured, imperfect Church of ours is holy. And we, every one of us stumbling conflicted joyful people, are called to be holy. Holier every day.
June 6, 2012
June 6th. My people and I have celebrated this day since I can remember, and now it is a bittersweet date for me because I cannot share with you, my friends, the joy and wonder of it. Today is the birthday of Alexander Pushkin.
Russian literature had existed before he came. It had lain before him in stately, frozen waves like a dune landscape in perfect still. Beautiful. Dignified. One grain at a time. He gathered it into the palms of his hands and brought it to his lips and whispered into it, and out of his hands it poured as rivers and flew as countless birds and burst as sunrise and rolled over our steppes and our hills and our souls.
He is the Russian literature’s animating breath.
He was a Petersburgian and walked the streets I love. Sometimes, tracing my hand against a railing along a Fontanka’s embankment, I used to realize suddenly, stunned every time anew, that Pushkin had been here. These stones bear his sacred steps. He passed by here, gazing into the water and over these façades, and the lines of The Bronze Horseman were forming in his mind. And I lost my breath then, knowing this. And I stepped with care. And I imagined.
Pushkin’s poetry cannot be translated. Not even his prose. What makes him the spirit and icon of Russian literature also makes him inaccessible outside of Russian, and I cannot share the miracle that he is with my English-speaking friends. Yet I cannot live this day and say nothing to you because, even though you haven’t touched his words, you have touched him – in me. He lives in me; he’s made me what I am. He’s made my people what it is.
Somewhere in the infinite spaces of my inner world, Alexander Pushkin stands in a row boat floating down a mighty river, looking ahead dreamily, gentle wind bothering his sideburns. Beside him is Mikhailo Lermontov – so young that the teenage fuzz on his cheeks has not yet fully gone – and he is laughing and rocking the boat. And the river flows with no end. The Silver Age of Russian literature. The river of Russian spirit that will always have been.
June 1, 2012
Yesterday evening, I celebrated Mass.
No, this is not about policy, social issues, or the institutional Church. Not today. Not this. This is about a moment of mystery pure. It’s about me – at the center of Sacrament.
Yesterday evening I was rushing about, preparing to go meet a friend for dinner – bothering with the little things – when a vast, fiery sunset crashed into my consciousness. Like a wall through a windshield.
Sunset… It’s such a cliché… But not to me.
I live high up, where I can see the sky. Always. My studio is little, but it opens up into endless space because one of its walls is the sky. To me, the sky is His whisper, His smile, and His promise. The sign of our covenant.
Yesterday evening I almost walked past it – and then, it reigned before me. I stood, stunned. Dropped what I was holding and dropped my hands and walked out onto the balcony, right into the heavens, and as I stood there, all things disappeared and dissolved into them.
The sky was so fluid and ever-changing… And yet it was…eternal. It was enormous. Spanning all times and concepts. All memories and finitudes. It was not It. It was He. Around and through me and filling reality in ways I could and could not conceive.
He moved galaxies gently before my eyes and glowed with light of azure and amber, brushstrokes of rose spreading through the smoky grays. Reaching into every corner of existence. And I stood before the heavenly altar, and the steeples of the primordial cathedral He had built before the time of hands soared beside me, and the breath of His Church – the breath of Creation – was held as I reached out my hands and touched the Body of Christ. And the confluence of every real presence rested in the palm of my hand, and from the sky the crimson blood of every pain of the Word Become World flowed past my lips as I inhaled to whisper one after another creeds and prayers, mixing ancient formulas and words unstructured as they came, mixing Hebrew, Russian, English – Lyubov’ moya sh’ b’shemayim v b’shalom v b’levi… Hallowed be Thy name… Hallowed be Thy name…
- “Midsummer Sunset” by Margus Saluste, cropped. http://www.sxc.hu/gallery/msaluste
I stood until my communion ran its course. Until the end of Eucharist. A thought briefly crossed my mind that in all that time I didn’t move and couldn’t feel a single muscle in my body tense or tire – I felt that I could stand that way forever, and I wished I would. I knew it wasn’t so. My body would get tired once time returned to its natural flow. This was a moment out of time. A foretaste of eternity. A sacrament.
“Sacrament” means “sign.” It is a visible sign of an invisible reality. A dimension of the Divine accessible on the human level. A protrusion of All That Is into that which is here.
I was late for dinner last night. My friend asked me what I was smiling at. I said, “Life.”
May 28, 2012
We humans love to talk about unrestricted time. We especially love promises that cannot be fulfilled: to love, to stay together, to make a fence that lasts forever… Seriously, the internet is full of ads for “Everlasting Fence.”
On this date, May 28th, in 1503, England and Scotland signed the treaty of “everlasting peace” that lasted almost exactly 10 years.
Most of the time, when we speak of things everlasting, we either don’t mean it or don’t understand what we are talking about. On the rare occasions that we do mean exactly what we say, we have no authority whatsoever to say it and no control over the object of our promise and so take an immeasurable risk.
But we are an adaptable species. When our everlasting plans fall apart, we adjust: we forget we ever made the plans, we ignore them, or – best adjustment of all – we reinterpret what they meant. How many customers will take “Everlasting Fence” to court for false advertising? Who today remembers the treaty of 1503 well enough to mock the Brits about it?
Of course, there is not much there to interpret. Ancient Israel had a more difficult problem with the “everlasting covenant” between the Lord and the great king David, of which all of Judah was so sure and which “forever” established the Davidic dynasty. David’s offspring’s throne would forever be secure, God had said. It seemed like a sure bet – if God couldn’t make everlasting promises, who could? And then the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem and annihilated the institution of the monarchy, and the throne was no longer secure. There was no more throne. Only a choice: either they find another meaning for “forever” or God lied.
I must say, I am not entirely ungrateful for this human capacity to reach beyond our ability to understand and then to readjust our understanding with little shame. As long as we are aware that’s what we are doing. Ancient Israel’s struggle with the Davidic covenant in the face of the death of their monarchy brought about the idea of messianic expectations and eventually painted the face of Christianity. I benefit from that. It’s just…we get very specific sometimes. And very sure of ourselves. Christianity has its own meanings for “everlasting covenant.” Look it up, you’ll find at least half a dozen.
Should we be more careful with our words? Or should we plunge in with abandon and see where the currents take us? I am honestly not sure.
May 27, 2012
Pentecost. The conclusion of the grain harvest in Jerusalem. The giving of the Law on Sinai in the biblical journey. My church all dotted in red.
We celebrate the spectacular showing of the Spirit today, and so for us it is a feast of prophets. The feast of all who are inspired, all who cannot stop but do what they do and shout what they know for it burns them from inside. All who are obsessed and mad and crowned in fire and appear drunk to us and silly but who speak, and suddenly we understand them because they speak our language. Artists. Poets. Teachers. Healers. Protesters. The makers of toys and the makers of spaceships.
Today we celebrate the human spirit and the Spirit of God being one and the same.
Fr. JD in his homily reminded us again that we were “in charge” and that we celebrated these feasts for us, not for God. We need the reminders, we need the betterment, the development, the change, and the rejoicing. “God,” he said, “is God. He is pretty much set.”
In a way, I agree. It is important to remember this: the liturgical calendar is for us. Our symbols and rites, our ways of helping ourselves feel more united with each other and with God, helping us be aware of where it all comes from and where we are going – these are ours indeed. But I think it’s also important to remember that it’s not just for us. It’s for God, too.
God is God, but He is not… set. In as much as Creation is changing and growing and struggling and traveling still toward God and unity with Him, God is not set. God is in the process with us, and our every feast, every thought, every deed, every sin, every sacrifice and loving gesture, every whisper change how He is.
To whatever degree and in whatever way what we call “God” is aware of all these things, God cares.
Because God and the world are inextricable from each other.
We celebrate this day for ourselves. And we celebrate it for Him. And so it should be.
May 25, 2012
The Sisters of the congregation with which I spend a lot of my time seem to celebrate their 70th and 80th birthdays with much less pomp and circumstance than they do the jubilees of their professions—the days they took their vows and entered formally and for life into the order and religious vocation. This is a more important date to them, and I think they are right. If all go well, it will be to me, too.
Birthdays are fun, but they are for us symbolic dates, as it were. I don’t remember my birthday, so to a large degree it is my family’s holiday. My parents, my sister remember that day, and they reminisce about it and tell stories. They celebrate its recurrence. What I celebrate every year with them is my gratitude to them and to life, a chance to mark the passage of cyclical time and the milestones of life’s journey, a chance to eat and drink and dance and get some funny cards. It’s a day to rejoice, but its roots disappear in the fog of my memory, so it could well have been any other day.
Perhaps, this is why adults become less excited about their birthdays as they grow up – we are less interested in presents, and all other birthday goods (like family and laughter and food and perspective) we hope to have more than once a year. We come to treasure anniversaries of the days whose memories never fade – reminders, punctuation marks of the year’s circle that govern the rhythm of our heartbeats. Our children’s birthdays. Our friends’ deaths. The dates of the coming and leaving that changed our lives. Triumphs, our own and humankind’s. Disasters of the same sorts.
This year’s Easter Vigil marked the first anniversary of my rites of initiation: my baptism, confirmation, and first communion. It is so vivid in my mind that when I think of it I feel as if I were about to break down again into sobs. I celebrate this anniversary as a birthday – a second birthday, the one I remember. The beginning of a new life. It will remain meaningful even if all who’ve known about it go home ahead of me.
May 24, 2012
Joseph Brodsky was a Russian poet, and he lived in and loved the city that I love: we are both Leningradians. He is one of the few Russian poets known in the West because the last 24 years of his life he spent in exile, and in America he wrote and taught and won awards. But every time he closed his eyes, he dreamt of the granite embankments and of the marble columns and of the golden domes and of the piercing vastness of space over the Neva and of the smell of the breaking april ice and its slight ringing that announced the coming of spring.
Here, in exile, Brodsky once wrote:
Neither country nor graveyard
Will I choose where to lie.
To Vasilyevsky Island
I will go to die.
Today, on May 24, 2012, he would have turned 72. He did not die on Vasilyevsky Island, in the heart of his city. He never even got to go back there. He died in exile, in New York, in 1996.
“Nostalgia” has been a special term for Russian émigrés for over a century now, sung and cried as the waves of turmoil of the 20th century kept driving whole communities out their homeland—aristocrats, Jews, all sorts… This nostalgia is not a wistful longing for the good times past. It’s not the melancholy that accompanies dear memories. It is a gut-wrenching, burning agony of a wound that never heals. An emptiness that cannot be filled. Writhing, hopeless despair of a dying body part separated from its body. This nostalgia fills the mind with one thought, one need, one wailing cry—to go home. This nostalgia kills.
But it doesn’t kill us all.
During the War, our soldiers would carry some Russian earth in their pockets—carry it for years, through battles, across rivers and fire and foreign lands, into Berlin. I have in a vase a few poplar branches that my friends broke off a tree on the night I was leaving, 21 years ago, and gave me at the airport. A couple branches of a Leningrad poplar are with me everywhere I live. And a few pictures, some books, and a map of the city.
All things are connected. But there are connections that hold all others. Weight-bearing walls. I look across the ocean and know that when all things come together on the Last Day, nostalgia will be no more.
May 23, 2012
I don’t know what it’s going to be like—being with God. We talk about the fulfillment of this world’s purpose in terms always metaphorical, hypothetical, and wishful because we cannot imagine the simultaneity of love and unity the Kingdom of Heaven promises. But I can almost feel an inkling of a foretaste of it sometimes, and I wonder. Is it a bit like the love and unity a child feels in his mother’s womb? Times a trillion?
A human being in his mother’s womb—is he at all like a soul in God’s embrace? Warm, wrapped in the softness and smoothness of peace, completely comfortable and completely protected? Suspended weight… Suspended time… A child and his mother like a soul and God together—a unity of two, feeling each other’s feelings, knowing each other’s every move, one nourished by the other through the very life’s blood they share, and she, who is his source and preserver, is gladdened by his joy in her.
It’s a pale and distant image, I am sure. But I wonder.
May 21, 2012
Different religions are like different languages. Two statements in two languages describing the same observed phenomenon will differ: In English, “this tree bears fruit”; In Russian, “это дерево плодоносит”. The speakers of the two languages will not understand they are speaking about the same basic reality underlying their statements unless they learn and comprehend each other’s languages, for the statements don’t look or sound the same. If taken at surface value, without the realization of their target truths, such statements may become the source of contention. When they are taken to concern cosmic life-and-death issues, they may lead to war. Even translation is not always an ideal solution. Translations cannot be exact, and verbal statements reflect the limitations of language and the peculiarities of each system’s mentality. Thus, while an approximation is possible, each expression of the same Truth remains unique, each religion’s approach to what they all ultimately seek to explain remains inimitable. Same Truth. Same world. Same message. Not at odds, not even in disagreement. Phrased differently. Practiced differently. Spoken, heard, seen, felt differently. Taking different paths – choosing, as languages do, different words – to the same Grand End.
May 20, 2012
Some say faith is an act of volition and can be willed. We choose to believe or disbelieve. Others say, faith is a gift and comes from God; we are but receiving containers. But faith is neither – and both. Faith is that touch between the hand and the clay in which the Creator and His creation come together in common movement, guiding and responding, feeling and knowing each other. Faith is the place, the moment, the feeling, the force of that intimate touch between God and the soul when both know each other’s presence with nothing in between. A moment of faith is a touch. A life of faith is a perpetual embrace.
Yes, faith is a gift – but one that must be accepted willingly, returned actively, treasured unconditionally. Yes, faith is a choice, but one that must be guided and helped from beyond the faithful heart, for a hand reaching out into emptiness will hold on to nothing unless received by a loving hand. Faith requires two wills willing together. Faith is a love affair between a soul and God.
May 19, 2012
To paraphrase Shaw in a common way, there are those who see things as they are and ask, “Why?” This is not a bad thing. Such are philosophers, scientists, artists—all sorts of inquirers into the nature of the universe. We owe to them the foundation of our knowledge, our understanding of the world such as it is, our evolving comprehension of ourselves, our ability to judge the past and to project into the future. They are the pillars of our civilization.
Others, to continue the paraphrase, dream things that never were and ask, “Why not?” They too are artists, writers, inventors—all sorts of idealists and dreamers. Some are society’s leaders, and perhaps Robert F. Kennedy indeed was such. To them we owe our courage, our daring spirit, our undying imagination. They are our inspiration and eternal hope.
Yet I feel we cannot stop here, for there are others still, who see things as they ought to be and ask, “How do we make it so?” They are revolutionaries in all the fields of human pursuit, fighters for the cause. They are iconic names inscribed on our monuments, and they are unsung heroes of progress buried by the forces of our reaction. To them we owe what good we’ve done. To them we owe what future we have. They are the salvation of humanity.
May 18, 2012
Approach your life as though accounting for everything you do is most severe, and one and only chance is ever given.
Approach others as though accounting is gentle, and second chances, third, and fourth abound.
Approach the Lord’s Table as though accounting is none, and chance is never-ending.
May 17, 2012
Today is the Feast of Ascension. Fr. JD said in his homily that today we celebrate the stage of salvation in which God left us in charge — a scary thought. I wouldn’t vote for this as the most precise formulation of the current stage of salvation, but there is a point to it, I think. The book of Acts creates an understanding that, the splendiferous flying up into the sky notwithstanding, Jesus is gone in a very human way, just like all those we’ve loved and let go, leaving behind his spirit (his Spirit) to guide us and inform us and console us and inspire us. To help us continue the work he’s left for us to do. Showed us the way and let us walk it. In the book of Acts, he is gone, and they go out and preach and baptize and build the Church. He doesn’t. They do. Fr. JD is right: when it comes to bringing what Christianity terms “salvation” into the corners of this world, we are in charge. What we have built is our (in the broadest sense of that word) Church, and its shame and its pride are ours. Our responsibility. His Spirit is around; merging with it is up to us.
How have we done, though? I don’t think we’ve done a terrible job, honestly. We’ve held on to much that is of Him: charity, compassion, egalitarianism, peace, forgiveness. Love. We’ve stood up for what is right at the cost of our lives. We’ve done well. But we’ve also messed it up a lot — which is usually the flip side of doing well. We’ve dropped the ball on charity, compassion, egalitarianism, peace, and forgiveness. We’ve kept silent in the face of wrong.
So what do we do? Same old thing, I think. In this earthly kingdom, while it’s growing and writhing and blossoming into the Kingdom of God, we are in charge. We just have to do it better.