Monday, August 31, 2009

squash balls

He taught them as one having authority.

-- Matthew 7:29 (NRSV)


My teacher – my sensei, though he did not want the title – stood before me with a squash ball in each hand. He was going to toss them both, and I was to catch them both, at the same time. But not by looking at them.

The others had attempted this, with degrees of success and failure. There were the ones who got all confused and missed both balls. There were the ones who concentrated on one ball while the other flew past. There were the ones who caught them both but went off balance, taking extra steps and showing how hard it all was. And a couple of the best young barbarians showed that they had gotten it. They really had gotten it. They threatened me. I was five years older. I was the teacher’s assistant. And I was learning what I should have learned before I was six – how to live in a human body. Everything that was easy for them was bitterly hard for me. They had learned to juggle in five minutes. Me, five weeks. And not well. And I would never get any better.

When I took the first year’s movement training for actors from my reluctant guru, he had not done this exercise. This was something new. I knew what the principles were. I knew how it was supposed to work. But I had never done it.

I was the master’s assistant. I couldn’t back down from the barbarian challenge. (I was the only one in the room who thought there was a challenge.) I had to do what they had done.

So I stood before the boss, ready to show myself, and him, and the others, a thing or two. Anyone who knows the literature of martial arts training – which this was not, and yet I thought myself in a severe dojocan tell you that this was a corrupt situation. The more I tried to prove something, the more I would confuse the issue. “Don’t think of what you have to do, don’t consider how to carry it out!” said the Master Kenzo Awa to Eugen Herrigel, when he began the study of archery.*

I breathed deeper than belly-breathing: I breathed into my crotch. I sent the ki through my feet, through the floor and into the earth. I looked into my teacher’s eyes and out the back of his head. I was somewhere else . . . and then the squash balls were soft in my hands. I had no thought of how they got there. There was silence in the room. My errors of intention had canceled each other out. For a moment I had become the model, the master’s assistant, to be admired and imitated.

In my years with this teacher, I never did better than that. I’m not really talented in this sort of thing. When I met him again years later I could not replicate this moment.

In another phase of life I worked with a great musician, on his way toward international fame. He was keyboardist, scholar and conductor, expert in the Baroque – and yet the sum of these prodigious skills did not contain his authority. He had touched the scores of Handel, Purcell, and Rameau; he knew what books they read, what clothes they wore, who they slept with and what they ate for breakfast. He could play anything in any style or key, and never played the same notes twice, particularly when playing the same piece. He worked from original sources rather than from tradition, so he never asked permission and was his own rule. Though he was rather a kind man, I could feel his impatience with the merely good musicians who had to work things through. He would have done well in my senseis studio, catching squash balls out of the air without thinking about it.

I think of a boy with his voice just breaking, left behind in the temple and disputing scripture with men several times his age. Speaking not like a student, tremulous and apologetic, asking permission and begging pardon for his interruption; but speaking as if he knew what he was talking about, turning the Law around in the light to reveal its unexposed facets, as if he had authority. How dare he catch the truth without effort?

The truth behind the truth is not to be exposed by effort. If I have to convince you that I ought to be here with you, then I ought not to be here with you. If I don’t already have the power in my hands, I can’t ask you for it.

*Zen in the Art of Archery (trans. R. F. C. Hull)

Sunday, August 30, 2009

funky priest

Take my hand quick and tell me,
What have you in your heart.
-- A. E. Housman

Taking her hand was like stepping into a wind tunnel. She drew me with all the force she was losing. I braced myself on the bedrail.
She held on, as the cliché goes, for dear life. She was holding on to me.

As the grey tabby curled by her bandaged head and the orange one at her feet, a brain tumor was killing her. She could understand but couldn’t say much. I figured out that she could answer a question, if the question included words that she could answer with.

I’ll ask you some questions, Caitlin, so I can find out how you’re feeling, if that’s all right.” “That’s all right.”

“Are you afraid of something? are you in pain?” “Afraid of something.”

“Afraid of what, Caitlin? of afterlife? of dying itself? Something else?” “Of dying.”

She and her sister auditioned me. These two had left three more sober siblings in Ireland, in favor of a bohemian life: they weren’t going to accept a chaplain who wasn’t “funky.” I wouldn’t have been there if they hadn’t found me funky enough.

Caitlin feared that her tumor was God’s punishment for her sins. It would mean her life had been wrong.

She was a trans-Atlantic stewardess in a time when the title certified that you were female, single and easy on the eyes. She made her own rules in the air and afterwards. She was a friend of poets and artists, an inspiration to her younger sister, and a closer of taverns on either side of the pond, on first-name basis with the precinct police, who would drive her home with the barstool from which they could not extract her. She was a wild Celtic Catholic woman, estranged from her church and half her family, and holding on to me.

Here there be monsters, but we can’t in good conscience deny ministry to the attractive. Firefighters run into burning buildings, and we run toward grief and fear. That’s why people look at us with pitiful eyes. How can you do that? they think, why would you do that? But it’s our calling: we must pluck up courage and learn the skills. And chief of these is to name the beast on which we ride.

For minutes at a time you might have watched us in seeming silence, the grey tabby in my lap, Caitlin holding on to me, I holding on for both of us. She was the sprite who lured Merlin into the woods; and I was her funky priest, a druid rather standing in for priests whose judgment she loathed and feared, but whose absolution she desired. These projections almost matched up.

You may say this was a corrupt bargain, a deal of deceptions. Compared to what? I say. It was this or nothing. In extremis she opened her heart, and closed her hand on mine, and this is what came through. She didn’t have a truer version of herself to show me. Nor I to her. Speak now, and I will answer,” says the poet. I got her message right between the eyes. My answer was, I’ve felt your power, and I’m not running away.

“How shall I help you, say.” Her sister and I found a priest of compassion, who brought more of God’s mercy than of judgment, and didn’t reinforce her fear. She took Anointing of the Sick from him.

She reached the age of sixty in that bed, and died -- as best we understood her -- in peace, with all her siblings near, including the ones she left behind.

There is no pure apprehension between human beings. We are always writing roles for each other on first impressions or long acquaintance, based on the past and looking through the present toward the future. The role you write for me can only partly coincide with the role I write for myself, and neither can be verified right now. On those people I have known the longest I project my most hyperbolic hopes. I make assumptions. “We’ve known each other through thick and thin,” I say, and so I surely thought that you . . .” “Assume is the word that makes an ass of u and me. Of such flimsy stuff do we construct our bridges of longing and compassion, extrapolating from facts to what no fact can support. It’s the best we can do, sometimes asinine but sometimes miraculous. Keep moving, and keep naming the faith. Stop and drown. We walk at best on water.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

poor readers

We must now wed fact to rhetoric. We must appeal to reason and emotion.

-- Chris Hedges, “The Truth Alone Will Not Set You Free,” www.truthdig.com, June 29, 2009


There’s a scene in some old army movie. “Snap out of it, soldier!” Smack. “Thank you, sir. I needed that.”

Hedges says we progressives still “believe in the Enlightenment ideal of reason alone, and that’s why we are “helpless” against barbarians of unreason. But he has it all reversed. Enlightenment is not emotionless. It is not cold. And we have lost our faith in it. Faithless, we are ashamed not only of our faults but of our virtues, and that’s why, when we should be rising to our duty, we hang our heads. How convenient, for ourselves and for those we should confront!

Enlightenment” is, of course, the name of a European impulse an explosion of splendid sarcasm that upended the thrones and altars of Europe, killing kings and evicting priests. In the brilliant light of criticism there could be no mysteries – no divine rights and no miracles, but universal rights and natural processes.

Similar ideas may have arisen elsewhere, but Europe brought its own versions by force to other continents. All rising peoples have their own freedom-songs; but Europe’s freedom-songs – songs that liquidated divine rights and rites – were meant to be universal, and have proved capable of universality. When peace broke out for a while in Tienanmen Square, they raised a statue of liberty. When peace broke out for good in South Africa, they played Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. When Dr. King came peacefully to the Lincoln Memorial, he presented an uncashed check from Thomas Jefferson. Subjugated peoples, emerging from confinement into the open space of freedom, have turned assets of Enlightenment against the power that created those assets.

We progressives are heirs to a Betrayal, but also to the Thing That Was Betrayed. By liberating its people’s energies, Enlightenment made Europe powerful; but Europe used that power to instrumentalize the world, making of the “Orient” a means to Occidental ends, inventing new divine rights for her own people and new forms of enslavement for others; and that is the Great Betrayal of Enlightenment. The cure is not less Enlightenment but more. Enlightenment, returning to judge her own betrayal, will exalt every valley and make plain the rough places.

So a reader who can’t find passion in Voltaire and Jefferson, Hume and Locke and Rousseau, is a poor reader indeed. But then, we have become poor readers who confuse amnesia with justice, neglect of our prophetic story with virtue. There are diversities to which we should not aspire, causes that think themselves aggrieved but should not be comforted. There are cultures, not just across the world but around the corner, that say their cramped reading of scripture is not be questioned; that ask for your loyalty and seize your judgment instead; that say science is the devil and sexuality – particularly yours – is evil. There are pompous thieves who claim to own the labor, the bodies, or the body parts of others, as means to their own ends. We are not perfect. We do not know everything. But we children of Enlightenment are here to make afraid those who do daily violence in the name of God – or in the name of whatever they put in God’s place. And they will be afraid, striking back if they can, for to name them is to expose their mystification and dissolve their power.

So this is no parlor game, no soirée of brie and chablis – ask George III and Louis XVI. The “Enlightenment Ideal” was not, as Hedges describes it, “that facts alone can move people toward justice,” but that claims to authority now must pass the test of reasonableness, or face decapitation. Because I say so (or because I say God says so, or because I say the people say so) isn’t good enough any more.

This is no dissertation we are writing but an epic poem. If we progressives have “lost the gift of rhetoric,” that is our own betrayal; but it is an unenlightened betrayal. Jean-François Lyotard said that postmodernity is an age of renunciation, when “grand narratives” are exposed as shabby oppressions: “The narrative function is losing . . . its great hero, its great dangers, its great voyages, its great goal.”* Umberto Eco meanwhile travels through irony toward recovery: a man and a woman, flirting without innocence in cheapened language, can “succeed, once again, in speaking of love,” restoring the capacity for “fantastic stories, . . . the telling of dreams.”** Well, my friends, freedom is a story, the grandest narrative of a dream.

Are you for the dream or against it? Liberation takes you from one place and deposits you in another, by a picaresque route that you did not anticipate. Dr. King at the Lincoln Memorial didn’t read articles of academic sociology but told a story. Or rather, he told three stories at once: the Promise of America’s founding, the Promise of Yahweh to Israel, and the Day of God’s justice rolling down like waters.

Immanuel Kant, Enlightenment’s culminator, told us that we break oppression’s simultaneous irrationality and immorality when we “Act so as to treat man, in your own person as well as in that of anyone else, always as an end, never as a means.”*** It’s a universal, not a local, principle. Freedom that stays local is to that extent no freedom.

“Fear not the new generalization,” said Emerson. He himself was slow to draw the next circle around American tyrannies, but he gave us the instrument. What isn’t wrong in principle isn’t wrong at all. If it’s not at bottom wrong to use the peoples of Africa, Asia and South America as means to European luxury, or if it isn’t essentially abominable for colorless people to steal from people of color their labor, then slavery is only a fact and not a sin. Reductio ad absurdum.

Unitarian Universalists were put on this earth to exercise religious language back to health. Our particular duty as liberals, the specific obligation of our social and theological location, is to exercise Enlightenment back to health. Self-criticism is a means to that purpose, but it is not the purpose itself. Snap out of it, soldier. Though we are sinners, we are not our sins. The greatest sin would be to throw our baby, our sacred child, out with dirty bath-water.

When light breaks over the horizon’s circle, we see who are the lions and who are the lambs. One by one and now, all the lambs must be rescued. One by one and now, all the lions must be humbled. Logos alone is not enlightened – word only shines when it is made flesh.

Thank you, sir. I needed that.

*The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi)

**“Postscript” to The Name of the Rose (trans. William Weaver)

***Metaphysical Foundations of Morals (trans. Carl J. Friedrich)

Monday, August 24, 2009

thinking being

I am therefore, to speak precisely, only a thinking being, that is to say, a mind, an understanding.

-- René Descartes, “Second Meditation” (trans. Laurence J. Lafleur)


“It’s hard,” she says. What’s hard? “It’s hard to speak.” She lies flat in her bed. Her face does not move, except for the slightest inflection of her lips, one or two words at a time. I have pulled my chair close, and I incline over the bedrail to catch the wisp of her thought. Her eyes travel the lines and angles of the room, this bedroom of her apartment, where she wants, above all things, to rest. But she is not at rest. If she could, she would be pacing.

“I hate it.” What do you hate? “People think -- ” I wait for her to gather. What do they think?

“They think – I’m stupid.”

When words come slowly, you want to respond in some corporeal way. You want to participate somehow in the sick one’s world, to sing her tune, dance her steps. You want this so much that your empathy can lead you astray. You might find yourself shouting, as if her difficulty of speaking were hardness of hearing, an obstacle that you can overcome by virtuous effort. You might find yourself completing her sentences, as if to say “You don’t have to say it. I am so perceptive that I understand!” You might catch yourself in baby-talk, as if her struggle to pronounce the words were a struggle to think of words, and you can supply their lack with intonation. These behaviors might make you feel that you are doing something. But they do not honor her.

That sounds awful. “Yes. It is.”

She was a teacher of small children. To be condescended to as she would never have condescended – its sounds like one of the Mikado’s punishments, only it fits no crime but her calling.

I know you’re not stupid, I say then. Or did I say this first? Did I defend myself from the accusation before responding to her pain? (Presenting your case, and especially when preparing the meretriciously named “verbatim,” you’re never quite sure what you may have already edited in your own honor. Memory is not a record but a writing, and when you recall the thing for others it’s already a version of the event.) Which was more important in my statement, the “I” or the “you”? Was I affirming her value or my innocence?

I’m sorry, I say. People make assumptions. That must be hard to bear.

“I’m not stupid.”

I know that.

There’s not much left of her now but cognition. The embarrassing appendage to which Descartes found himself attached betrays her now. Her body’s vigor drains like water from a punctured pipe. Today I can barely hear her. Tomorrow perhaps I won’t hear her at all. She’ll be reduced to moving her eyes, or blinking. Then, maybe, nothing. She will exist, and she will not exist.

I am an introvert. I live on the inside, where my thoughts and passions form each other. My life is a series of surprises, as I learn new ways to sally forth and break new trails, exploring unknown paths, amongst unfamiliar terrain, in exotic climates and for longer seasons; but I must always come home within the gates, where in secret chambers my plundered data can sort themselves out. There I learn where I have been, and where I might go. I leave, I return. Gone away, back again. Lost, found. Fort/da, the child’s game observed by Freud. An introvert knows how to close the others out. But what if the gate closed me in? The stuff of a very bad dream.

I’m in the midst of a counter-transference. She reminds me of someone. The person she reminds me of is me. I am afraid for her.

Of what use is my fear?

Is it any of our people who treat you this way? I ask. (Lord, is it I?) “No.” I am relieved. She has declared us innocent. There are others whose attentions she must accept: the friend of many years, the distant relative, and the caregiver – from an agency -- who spends more time with her than any of us.

I know there’s a person there, I say. You are a person. I won’t forget.

“Pray for me.”

Of course. Of course I will.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

red rose

Theology is – or should be – a species of poetry.

-- Karen Armstrong, The Spiral Staircase


My love is like a red, red rose; but she would be displeased if on that account I sprayed her with pesticide, or pruned her in the spring. She would not then think me a good lover, nor would she think me a good gardener. She would know from my behavior that that I had not understood the poem. Burns was not making a botanical comparison.

And yet my love is like a rose. Saying this, I attribute beauty to her figure and her aura. I announce a standard of delicacy in approaching her. I demand your reverence for her person, and for my actions in her honor. These are proper consequences – logical entailments – of the poet’s premise. If I am prepared to live out these entailments, then my statement was true. If I can say such things truly, I change her life and mine. But I do not prune her or spray her.

Being rational means, among other things, knowing what kind of reason one is practicing at the moment. Am I making love or botany? Music or chartered accountancy? The logics of physics and anthropology, chemistry and history, prose and poetry, are parallel lines that do not meet, and yet all these researches may be pursued rationally or irrationally. One cannot ride a bicycle by Aristotelian syllogisms; and yet one rides or, if riding irrationally, one falls off.

I am a Unitarian, and so I stand in the shoes of sixteenth-century martyrs like Michael Servetus and Katherine Vogel, who chose to die horrible deaths rather than say the words “Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” As a twenty-first century liberal, I find their choice to die for mere theology a strange one, but what’s even stranger is the choice of those who killed them for theology. No term of theology is worth a human life, yours or mine. Learning this is part of what we mean by moral progress.

I don’t think I’d like to have a beer with either Servetus or Vogel. They speak from a world I am glad to leave behind, here in my Western liberal democracy. They seem to think that terms of pure speculation – words like “Father,” “Son,” “Holy Ghost” – are real like quarts of milk. That the words refer to things, and those things, like bullets or balls of cotton, can actually hurt or heal.

Both the Unitarian martyrs and their persecutors are confused about the nature of reason, and of language. They do not understand that the words Father, Son, Holy Spirit are figures of speech rather than names for objects. The Church Father, when forced to explain the Trinity, has to admit it’s a mystery – that it’s just a representation, within the categories of human experience, for what exceeds that experience. And yet the Church has killed in the name of these representations.

No term of theology is worth a human life. What’s worthy of life is, as Micah said, loving kindness, and acting justly, and walking humbly with our God. Humbly: which is to say, without presuming to settle God’s grievances for her. Vengeance is mine, she said, so leave it to me. What’s worthy of life is loving your neighbor as yourself – remembering that even a vile Samaritan may be neighbor to a Judean, even a klansman to a black man, even a Republican to a Democrat.

So I’m a post-modern Unitarian, and I lose no sleep about the Trinity. I know that people sometimes experience God as like a parent, and sometimes as like a divine child, and sometimes as like a Spirit, without which swing it don’t mean a thing. I have no problem with that – I’m sometimes part of it.

I can assent to Trinity, knowing that, like all theology, it’s poetry. If you think it’s fact, you show that you haven’t understood the doctrine. To think that it excludes, or is excluded by, my people’s intuition of absolute unity is to apply the wrong form of reason at the wrong time and place. It’s trying to ride a bicycle by Aristotelian syllogisms. It’s spraying your love with pesticide.

God consists of Father, Son and Holy Spirit in much the same way that my love is like a red, red rose. No pruning, please.