Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Greatest Compliment Ever Given

Yesterday our Bible study covered the readings for September 23, 2014. The gospel was Luke 8:19-21, a very short but very dense gospel.
The mother of Jesus and his brothers came to him
but were unable to join him because of the crowd.
He was told, “Your mother and your brothers are standing outside
and they wish to see you.”
He said to them in reply, “My mother and my brothers
are those who hear the word of God and act on it.”

Of course, the first question to address was whether Jesus really meant to dis His mother like that. Leaving aside the question of Jesus' "brothers," which is a predictable and necessary issue to address for Catholics, the statement still seems like a terrible thing to say. After His mother walked who knows how many miles to see her Son, who hadn't been in town for a long time and wasn't going to be around for a long time in all likelihood. After all that trouble, He doesn't even take the time to see her or say anything to her. He just keeps on doing what He is doing. The question in Matthew 12:48 is even harsher: "Who is my mother? And who are my brothers?"

But what if you "invert the question" as my brother would say? (He talks theology like it's a slightly more complicated math problem.) Instead of Jesus saying, "Mom? What Mom?" He is inverting the question. "My mother? Do you want to be like her? Listen to the word of God and do it. You are my mother, my brothers, my sister, my family, if you hear the Word of my Father. I am the Word that was in the beginning. Listen to what I say and do as I do, and you are my own. My family."

He is not bringing His mother down, He is raising us up.

But there is more to it. In a way He is also paying Her the greatest compliment that it is possible for
God to pay a human. Take a look at it from her point of view for a second. After not seeing her son for weeks or months, walking for hours, and likely not to see Him again for months more, she is turned away at the door, so to speak. How did she take it? The same way she responded to every other action of God in her life: "Be it done unto me, according to thy will."

Imagine you have a friend or family member, who is so close with you, loves you so much, that you can go over to his house any time you want, day or night. If he isn't home you can open it up with the spare key under the loose brick, help yourself to his food and drink his beer and read his books. When he gets home he is completely thrilled to see you (unless you drink his last beer, my brother points out.)

Or say that I go running with my brother, who is much faster than I am. He isn't going to leave me behind, but he isn't going to take it easy on me either. He is going to run as fast as I can follow, and he is going to expect me to suck up the pain and suffer through it. He expects suffering, he expects courage, he expects me to push myself. 

Or say I ask my wife to keep me on track regarding a habit of sarcasm. She will take me seriously, and she will expect me to take her reminders humbly and with good grace. She will expect me to grow.

Now go back to Jesus and Mary. She wanted to see her Son. Her desire was denied, because He had a mission. Dozens, or even hundreds of people needed Him at that moment, and He desired to give Himself to them. With all the Love in the Eternity of the Godhead, He desired to share Himself with each one of those people. His mother loved Him, so much that she desired for Him what He most desired for Himself. She loved all of those people because He loved them, and willingly sacrificed her desire to see Him. 

This would continue until she stood at the foot of the cross, suffering with her Son, offering Him to the world, to you and I, as the best she has to offer. This was the compliment He offered her, the greatest compliment possible for a good person. I hold, and always will hold, that the greatest compliment you can offer to a good person is to invite them to become better, to become the best they can be.

God offered Mary the opportunity to take part in His work, to accept along with Him the sufferings and self-donation. He offered her the hard road of the cross, as the greatest gift, the greatest compliment it was in His power to give, expecting Her to accept the loss of Him, because He knew that she was given the grace to accept it, and He trusted in her love and faith. Seen like this, this short gospel passage becomes even more beautiful and amazing. 

More amazing still, she invites us to join her in suffering with her Son. 

Mary, Mother of Our Savior, Pray for Us.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Babies R Us, Or, How I Realized that my Life is a Miracle!!!

Creating a baby registry at Babies R Us, can be something of a spiritual epiphany. As my wife and I approached the priestesses at the altar of customer service, we were greeted with joy, warmth, fellowship and unlimited knowledge-of-all-of-the-baby-things, which they promised to impart to us for absolutely free (for six months with financing!)

The first thing they offered to do was to take all of the work and thought out of answering the age old question "What does a baby need?" They would do this by automatically populating our registry with a list of 50 most popular, must-have items that were absolutely essential to well being and happiness of moms and babies!

:-)

Oh, and dads too. Of course! :-)

We declined several times, with incrementally increasing firmness and decreasing politeness. We, ignorant neophytes that we were, preferred a paper copy that we could treat as suggestions, and decide what we wanted and what we didn't want. The priestesses sighed, but mercifully humored our ignorance, after reminding us that they were only trying to save us time. We could go online afterwards and remove any items we didn't want but if we wanted to waste all that time individually scanning each one, then they would allow us to have a paper copy.

Oh, the things we learned, wandering those hallowed aisles. Before embarking on that adventure if you asked me what babies need I would have answered, "Warm hugs, full bellies and clean butts." That's about what I got when I was a baby, and I had always thought that I turned out more or less okay. My wife concurred. But, Oh, how deprived I was. It turns out babies need so much more. Just think, if I had gotten all of the things that I needed, how I might have turned out. I might have become president. I might have discovered a new planet. I might have broken six foot tall! We will never know. "Of all the words of tongue and pen / The saddest are these: it might have been."

We learned that babies need a minimum of three strollers. One for the big, all day adventures, a light one for folding and putting in the car, and one for around the house. You also should probably have a jogger, so that you can jog with your young offspring and instill healthy habits early. Make sure you check the safety ratings because it must be crash-proof, side-impact tested, and not past its expiration date. And when the expiration date arrives in three years, we will cut you a sweet deal on upgrading! Or at least trade-in. Or at least we will think about offering you a deal. We will definitely smile at you very nicely as you buy the new stroller. Safety first! If your baby is riding in a four-year old stroller you are A BAD PARENT!!!

No baby's life could possibly be called complete without an $800 chest of drawers with attached changing table, hypo-allergenic, ergonomically contoured foam changing mattress with disposable mattress liners and wipe warmers. And if it is not color coordinated and themed, then you will forever skew your child's aesthetic development forever. And ever.

A diaper genie that merely holds that diapers until trash or laundry day? Unacceptable! If your diaper genie does not have reloadable rolls of shrink wrap which automatically isolates each diaper in its own vacuum sealed compartment, well, then you are clearly just not a good parent! Bathe baby in the sink? What, are we barbarians here? No, what your baby needs to be really clean and healthy is a baby tub all his or her very own for only $50.00. Still changing the baby on a towel? Well, we have a travel changing mat for you that will transform into a spaceship and magically zap all of the germs in a three yard radius!

Buy the super deluxe space-age breast pump for umpteen hundred dollars, and you too can look like our perfectly coiffed, made-up and manicured model in casual business attire, typing out an executive looking report while she pumps breast milk for her baby. You will also have a flat, six pack tummy. And a free lollipop! And gone are the days of those little rubber nipples that looked like cow udders, the ones where you had to adjust the flow rate by how tightly you tightened the ring. Nowadays the really well nourished child is a result of Science! We have a different set of nipples for each age bracket, 0-1 month, 1-3 months, 3-6 months, and 6-12 months, with a properly formulated drip rate (mimicking the human breast which, apparently, develops more jets per nipple as the baby ages... wait, what?) The best part is they are only $5.00 a piece!!!

For the hiking, marathon and triathlon running toddlers out there, we have an entire line of organic, gluten-free, free trade, paleo goo's, granolas, and trail mixes in convenient squeeze packages for use on the trail, available in a whole range of sizes to suit your child's athletic metabolic needs. Gotta carb on the go!

Carrying the baby? Snuggee or wrap getting a little too passe? We have baby carriers for you. You probably need at least three, one for around the house, one for hiking in Aussie outback colors, and one particularly nice one with a sunshade, in-case baby doesn't want to wear a hat and you can't find any shade.
How could a baby not be happy without pastel animals of every species and hue?

Forget that old pack-n-play that was just a pack-n-play. Nowadays, the discerning infants are demanding pack-n-plays that include built in changing table and self-rocking crib with a variety of synthesized classical music on ad-nauseum repeat. That little folding pen over there in the corner, that doesn't do anything except fold out into a play-pen? There is a reason it's over in the corner, hidden under shadows and metaphorical cobwebs.  Go ahead and get that for your poor, helpless infant if you want. Watch her cry her poor little eyes out when she sees what all the other infants are rocking. You'll be back!

I look at my entire life with a new gratitude, for the miracle it is. How I ever made it through my deprived childhood to adulthood is beyond me. I cannot even really be sure I did. What if the scars are so deep and lasting that I only think I did, but I cannot even really see the damage? It is a possibility, since my wife and I remained blissfully unconvinced of our need for all of these things. We placed a total of 8 items on our registry so far, and I am looking into the possibility of hand-making the furniture this winter. Another option is to go the Finnish route which seems to be working for them, as they have one of the lowest rates of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) in the developed world. The sleeping out in the snow thing didn't seem to hurt me either (long story. Remind me to tell it sometime...)

But I am grateful, and I appreciate my life more, knowing that I narrowly survived extreme deprivation of All-of-the-baby-things. My wife and I are survivors. Perhaps because of the emotional scarring, we will not be purchasing all of the things, and we will not be asking other people to buy all of them for us. We are not sure if we can bring them up like these folks in the picture to the right without all the comforts of life, but we are going to give it a shot.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Art as Prophecy


 "Words strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still..."
T. S. Eliot, "Burnt Norton."

 If art is communication of vision, then true art is prophesy. Each human person sees, or at least is called to see, some aspect of God that no other creature in existence can ever see. I believe that this is the true basis for that mysterious quality which we call individuality, but that requires a good deal more thought. What I am certain of is that God communicates a part of Himself to us that He communicates to no other person. Or to put it differently, He communicates His whole being to us in a way that He does for no other person. Whenever a human being sees a glimpse of that communication and tries to share it with another human being, art is born. This transcends the formal arts, music, writing, painting, sculpture, acting and so forth. This permeates all truly human activities down to the most mundane. Thus we can speak of an "art" to good conversation; an "art" of letter writing; an "art" to hospitality; an "art" to flipping burgers. When we say that someone does some mundane task artfully, we meant that he or she is doing it purposefully, meaningfully, in the best manner possible and this raises their activities to the level of art. 
humanly.They are not simply tying a shoe, they are tying it well, with attention to the shape of the knot, the length and balance of the loops and tails. They are seeking to do what must be done

Art is prophecy, in this sense, because the beauty that one person sees in the restrained elegance of the Japanese tea ceremony is a reflection of God. The beauty that another seas in the barely controlled chaos of the mudroom when the kids come in from a ramble through the woods in mid-March is also a reflection of God. To share either beauty with the other, to translate it so that they can see and appreciate it, is to broaden their appetite for beauty, to show them a truth they were not aware of, or had forgotten, or simply had never exercised. It shares a part of God with them that otherwise they would not have seen.

It is this that I mean when I say that art is prophecy. It is usually unconscious, I suppose, a reaching after "we know not what." That is what makes art universal when it is at its best. It is an expression of longings that remain inarticulate. The methods of art can be used as a distraction from those longings, which I would classify as entertainment rather than art. This too has its place as a rest, to help us refit until we are strong and ready to begin the pursuit once more. Art, however, should not distract from the longing, the not-enough-ness. It should point it out, set a finger on it and say, "I try to capture the 'more' but it will not be captured."

It need not be unconscious, though.
"The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight,
The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning
Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
While the music lasts. These are only hints and guesses,
Hints followed by guesses; and the rest
Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action."
  T. S. Eliot, "The Dry Salvages."

An artist may know what he is truly striving after, put a name to Him, and by discipline, prayer and observance, the "lifetime's death in love/ ardour and selflessness and self-surrender," bring himself more and more to mirror that light, to enter into that relationship, and to gaze upon the beauty he seeks to communicate. It is necessary, in the end, or else he runs the risk of being more in love with his communication of the beauty than with Beauty Himself. In the end I suppose he will come with Thomas Aquinas to know that everything he has ever created has been only straw, valuable to God only because God loves Him. In the end, the reader, the viewer, the sharer of the art will also be drawn beyond the art. They will leave behind our best works like forgotten toys, and that which once inspired us will be no longer relevant, loved for old time's sake, as a grown up may keep a teddy bear in the box in his closet.

This is to be expected, even to be hoped for. Our glimpses are partial, shadowy, incomplete. They were never meant to satisfy. They were meant to introduce, to excite, to tease and urge onward. The reality is "further up and further in."

If there are prophecies, they will be brought to nothing;
if tongues, they will cease;
if knowledge, it will be brought to nothing.
For we know partially and we prophesy partially,
but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.
When I was a child, I used to talk as a child,
think as a child, reason as a child;
when I became a man, I put aside childish things.
At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror,
but then face to face.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Prophecy: Your Own Kind of Crazy

A Leader
is a fellow
who refuses to be crazy
the way everybody else is crazy
and tries to be crazy
in his own crazy way.
                                Peter Maurin, "Easy Essays."

The idea of prophecy has been rolling around in my head for a while now. I am not sure why. I remember in my early days of blogging, coming across Christian bloggers who would write about "prophetic words" that they had been given, or which their pastor had uttered, or some writer had shared. Some were concerned with the end times. I passed over them. Jesus seemed pretty adamant that worrying about the end of the world was not our business, and was rather a distraction than anything else (Matthew 24:36, Mark 13:32). 

Perhaps the issue was that I, and all of these bloggers, seemed to interpret prophecy as a prediction for the future. I have very little to say about that. I acknowledge that such things are possible, by God's grace, but am not much interested in it. I know that the future is in God's hands. My task is to live it with Him as it happens. The same goes for the end of the world. In all likelihood, whether the world ends any time soon or not, I will die sometime in the next 70 years or so. My task is to die a little bit every day in order to live more fully the Divine life. The world ending or continuing is largely irrelevant to that task.

However, recently I have been drawn to considering prophecy outside of the strict theological sense of a prediction of future events, or revelation of unknown events, and drawing a broader meaning. For instance, very little of the work of prophets in the Bible relates to predicting the future. Predictions occur, but they seem to be a highlight of the job, rather than part of the day to day grind. Instead, the much of the times the prophets of the Old Testament seem to be more concerned with reminding, correcting, exhorting, warning and admonishing. They give concrete instructions, and they bring the law back to mind. 

In a sense, they communicate the idea of a living relationship with God, based on dialogue, rather than simply a set of rules that no one remembers anyway. I am most struck by the fact that being a prophet in the Old Testament is an uncomfortable proposition. People don't like being told they are not just wrong, but dead wrong, and they are going to pay the price if they don't shape up. "They say to the seers, 'See no more visions!' and to the prophets, 'Give us no more visions of what is right! Tell us pleasant things, prophesy illusions.'" Isaiah 30:10. 

This admonishing of sinners can be thought of as a reminder, call back to their true desires. Of course, in strict mystical theology, a prophecy is a direct revelation from God, in this broader sense it is the birthright, and indeed the calling, of all Christians. In my last blog I spoke of the central aloneness of each human being, created as we are in calling to a "unique, exclusive, and unrepeatable relationship with God Himself." In the blog before that I spoke of art as a sort of prophesy. Both of those posts anticipated this one. 

In the poem I posted on August 10th I dimly saw the necessity of prophecy as a reminder. The question, "Are you happy?" is a prophetic question, because the answer for any thoughtful, honest person can never be an unqualified, "yes." There is always some dissatisfaction, some incompleteness. We do not live as fully as we might live. We do not give as fearlessly as we might. To be reminded of that is uncomfortable. It makes me squirm. To be shown the gifts that currently sit stagnating in the abandoned warehouses of my life is to be reminded that I have never done enough. I fall short of total gift. The thought makes me squirm and I turn on the x-box and play Nazi zombies to distract myself. I putz about on youtube, clicking from one epic rap battle to the next, as all the while precious moments slip by, moments in which I am not praising God or serving my fellow man. I am not creating art, or absorbing beauty. I am being entertained. I do not want to be reminded. I want to be "distracted from distraction by distraction."

But this reminder is a spiritual work of mercy. If I cannot be holy yet, I should at least be uncomfortable. I should not be content with mediocrity. "Let a righteous man strike me—it is a kindness; let him rebuke me—it is oil for my head; let my head not refuse it. Yet my prayer is continually against their evil deeds." Psalm 141:5.

I think this is why I talked the day before yesterday about the necessity of doing something radical. I remember saying once, at a party of all places, when the conversation had turned to tricks and gimmicks that people resort to in order to seem mysterious, that a human being should not need to try to be mysterious. Each human person is a mystery. If you live as you were meant to live, true to the face of God that you alone and no one else can see, then you will be mysterious. People will not get you. You will be asked to explain yourself. 

In fact, if you have never done something that seemed absolutely crazy to everyone else, but which you knew you had to do, it is probably a good indication that you have never lived.


Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Set Apart Humanity



 I have watched a number of movies lately that seemed to have a theme in common. The two that come to mind had a definite "teen sci-fi" flare to them: "Divergent," and "The Giver." While I hesitate to lump the two into the same category (and will no doubt be mentally excoriated for doing so by any who have seen both) they have a lot of similarities. Both are based on novels marketed primarily for teens, both involve dystopian futures in which an apparently benevolent government or cultural schema controls all aspects of life. However, this controlling, impersonal authority (personalized in the character of an older, neatly dressed woman in both cases) is revealed to have sinister designs, and the cultural schema is shown to have dark secrets. It must be resisted by the protagonist who is singled out in a coming of age ceremony. The protagonist has talents and abilities which set him or her apart from everyone else, and he or she must make the choice whether to use those talents to serve the power or to challenge it for the sake of true freedom. The choice to pursue freedom for themselves leads to the choice to sacrifice in order to provide freedom for everyone else in their society as well.

In fact, the main difference is the writing and the depth of the themes explored by the nature of the differences. These differences are significant; I would not consider "Divergent" worth a second watch, although I plan on reading the book. "The Giver" I would watch again, and I plan on re-reading the book several times, probably out loud to my children when they are old enough.

But the theme they held in common is what you might call the "set apart" theme. It is different from the lone hero theme, which is common to much great literature. For instance, Frodo Baggins is a consummate lone hero, but he is not a "set apart" hero. He becomes a lone hero by the end of the trilogy, but he does not start out that way. He starts out as a perfectly normal hobbit, just like every other hobbit. He is thrust into abnormal circumstances by external factors, and the experience of carrying the One Ring to Mordor sets him apart. When he departs from the Grey Havens, alone, he does so because he has sacrificed his ordinariness so that others might keep it.

The "set apart" hero is a little different. The set apart hero begins the story different from everyone else. Either he is born that way, or something (e.g. a mutated spider bite) makes him that way. The story is about him exploring that difference, coming to terms with it, and deciding what to do with it. 

In "The Giver," Jonas is different because he can see and feel things that everyone else has forgotten how to see and feel. He sees color, feels emotion, and looks beyond the surface of things. In "Divergent," Tris is different because she has the ability to embrace the traits of more than one of the dominant social classes. They are born with these traits without knowing that they have them, but in the coming of age ceremony they discover them, and it is this discovery which prompts the growth arc.

What struck me about the "set apart" theme was how deeply it seems to resonate with people. I know one man (in his mid-thirties) who insists that "Divergent" could have been written about him. He doesn't fit into everyone else' categories, his brain works differently, he sees possibilities that no one else sees, etc. The "set apart" hero taps into a very powerful longing that everyone has to be different, to be unique, special, mysterious.

Perhaps this is why the ordinary hero tends to be better literature, in my opinion. It is more realistic. Ordinary people without special powers or special talents how have to rise to extraordinary challenges make better stories. We want to root for them, the people who have to struggle, fight for it, earn their specialness. We root even more for those who have no choice but to fight for what they love, and so specialness is thrust upon them when they would like nothing more than to remain ordinary.

But the "set apart" hero has a place too. It calls to the place in us that wants to be different, unique, special, because we are different, unique, special. At the very center of every human being there is an intransigence, something that is utterly incommunicable. The reason that these stories resonate so deeply, especially among the nerds, weirdos and outcasts, is that they are most used to not being understood. Everyone, however, knows what it is like to be misunderstood. Everyone goes through times when they feel that no one "gets" them. Everyone feels, occasionally, an uncrossable gulf yawning between them and even their closest friends.

There is a reason for this. It is important. It means something. In truth, each human being is unique because each human being: "is 'alone': this is to say that through his own humanity, through what he is, he is at the same time set into a unique, exclusive, and unrepeatable relationship with God himself" (John Paul II, Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body. 6:2). Each human person is, at his very core, utterly and irrevocably alone. That is why it is natural for everyone to feel at times like no one understands. No one gets you. Of course not. Only God can get you, because there is an aspect or facet of God that you, and you alone in all of time and space, were created to see and know and love. 

Gaze on that face of God, allow it to suffuse your being. Then share that being with the world, and you will find that you are unique and original, without having to look at yourself at all.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Slow Detachment

There are three conditions which often look alike
Yet differ completely, flourish in the same hedgerow:
Attachment to self and to things and to persons, detachment
From self and from things and from persons; and, growing between them, indifference
Which resembles the others as death resembles life,
T. S. Eliot, "Little Gidding."

A picture of a messy garage which is not ours, added solely for the sake of hyperbolic illustration
A little while ago my wife and I were cleaning out our garage. As garages go it was not terrible. That is, I have seen worse. There was room to walk, and most of the stuff in the garage had a plan and a purpose attached to it, of the "we-really-need-to-remember-to-put-that-thing-in-the-car-so-we-can-drop-it-off-at-so-and-so's-next-time-we-are-in-the-area" variety. And yet, at the end of the day, we had two pickup truck loads of stuff to take to St. Vincent de Paul (the local Catholic equivalent of Goodwill.) Where does it all come from? 

Standard issue Vietnam-era Load Bearing Equipment, non-modified
Sometimes it was a bit of a wrench, letting things go. More often for her than for me, since I have had to move around so much I have deliberately avoided accumulating too much stuff. However, even I had a moment of soul searching. It might seem strange, but I had to think long and hard before getting rid of my Special Forces Qualification Course Load Bearing Equipment (LBE).

Yes, that's right. I had kept the LBE that I wore throughout the two years I spent in the Q course, because I had modified it so much that the Army supply folks would never take it back. I had removed all the metal clips and buckles and replaced them with 550 cord. I had cut the shoulder pads off because they interfered with the rucksack pads. I had two compass pouches (primary and backup), two ammo cases, and two canteen cases with a canteen cup, black and unreturnable from being shoved into too many campfires and hung over too many Dakota fire holes. I had shortened it so that it would ride high on my chest, about the level of my sternum, because I did not like the belt interfering with the kidney pad of the rucksack underneath it, and I had my name-tape sewn on one of the diagonal back straps.

Of course it was not the modifications that made me reluctant to get rid of it. Those had taken time and effort, but I was never going to use it again. Ever. I would never wear it in combat because I cannot wear it over body armor and I get issued more comfortable and practical carriers nowadays. No, it was purely sentimental reasons that made me cling to it. I put blood, sweat, dirt and pain into that thing by the ton. I considered keeping it around simply as a home defense option. Simply throw it at a burglar and he would be so overcome by all the sadness it contained that he would just give up like poor Artax.
It was a part of the most intense period of my life, but I had no use for it. So I got rid of it.

My wife did not understand that. She keeps things that she has an emotional attachment to. I got rid of my LBE because I had an emotional attachment to it. Does that make sense? It sort of did at the time.

You see, I take very seriously the concept of detachment. "Naked I came into this world, and naked I shall leave it," (Job 1:21). I also take very seriously the distinction between this world and the next, and try to remain cognizant of what is most valuable. "Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and vermin corrupt and thieves break in and steal. Rather, lay up treasure for yourself in Heaven... for where your treasure is, your heart will be also," (Matthew 6:19-21). I do not consider these optional bits of advice, or pious sentiments. They are serious, practical, deadly earnest guides for living. They are survival guides for the spiritual life. I value simplicity, freedom, availability. In a word, detachment. I do not want to be attached to anything. That is, I do not want to allow the things I own to have power over me.

This requires an attitude that may seem radical to others. It means that I have to be guided by what I know rather than by what I see. For instance, if someone backs into my car and totals it, and I get angry and say even so much as one harsh, angry, or spiteful word to him, I am in the wrong. My sin is far worse than his. All he did was damage a thing, a mere object of metal and plastic, whereas I attacked a person who is destined to live forever. This means that if someone owes me money ($100, $500, $50,000, or $1,000,000 makes no difference) and they refuse to pay it, then I would be wise simply to let it go rather than take them to court and get embroiled in a heated argument over it. If the price of getting my money back is losing my peace or thinking hateful things about another human being, then it is not worth it. Human persons are of infinite worth, money and things are of finite worth.

The same is true of things. I have always been hesitant to buy nice furniture, dishes, books, clothes, etc. because once you own something that is pristine, brand new, fancy, expensive, artful, or whatever, you feel bound by it. It limits you. You now feel a responsibility to maintain it, to keep it in the state that it is in, to defend it. It tempts you to worry about getting a scratch on it, or spilling something on it. I read of a fairly wealthy couple who had a habit of donating their car every few years and buying a new one, and when they drove the new car home the first thing they did was take a hammer to it and leave a dozen or so large dents in the hood and doors, just to remind themselves not to be attached to the niceness of this car. Is that crazy? Is it radical?

If I am so attached to my leather couch that I feel the slightest hint of anger when someone scuffs it through carelessness, I am allowing a mere thing to have power over me. Is it so radical now to put a few deliberate scuffs in it, just to forestall that? Or to buy a second-hand couch?

I must be careful, though. As the T. S. Eliot quote above indicates, detachment is a slippery concept, and wrongful detachment can be more spiritually deadly than attachment. Detachment does not mean that I have a right to despise nice things. As far as I know I have no right to despise any good thing whatsoever. Human art and craft, the making and sharing of beautiful, useful and interesting things is a highly worthy goal, and in a mysterious sense it is an act of prophecy. As a case in point, yesterday my wife and I bought a beautiful original oil painting by Don Crook from an art show at the state fair. It depicts the novel "Moby Dick" lying open on a wrinkled sail cloth, with a ship's compass, pipe and lantern around it, and the epic final battle with the white whale literally exploding out of the pages. It is now hanging next to my book shelf as I type this blog. It cost about $250.
Incredibly realistic painting found at http://www.lifeartworks.com/incredibly-realistic-paintings-photos/

It would not be spiritual detachment, but rather churlish lack of imagination, not to admire that painting, and to be inspired by it, not to be grateful for the gift of talent and the years of work, discipline and sacrifice it took to refine his gift. Nor am I going to take a hammer to the frame or cut a slash across the canvas. I am going to treat it with the respect it deserves. Every work of art is a statement made by the author that says, "Look! I see something beautiful and I want you to see it and be drawn out of yourself as I am." Or: "I see something ugly, which presupposes that there must be beauty. Look at the ugliness, and lament as I do." (This speaks of true art, which must be differentiated from sensationalism, which feeds upon ugliness without looking for beauty.) Each work of art, or meticulously and superfluously carved piece of furniture, is an image and imitation of the piece of God that the artist sees, which we could not see unless he or she shared it with us.

Detachment does not mean despising these glimpses. In fact, someone who refuses to buy mass-produced crap from Walmart and sacrifices time and money to buy handmade beautiful things and support those who produce them may be extremely detached. Detachment simply means seeing things as they are. Glimpses of God are only glimpses. They are images of God, and therefore sacred; But they are also not God, and therefore utterly expendable.

Every glimpse is temporary, provisional, partial, seen through a glass, darkly. When the glimpse is taken away, as all glimpses are eventually, the measure of our attachment to it is to be found in our sadness in its passing. We are all attached, and we all must be detached from the glimpses so that we may seek the real thing. That is, after all, the purpose of moths, vermin, rust and thieves. They serve a holy function, anticipating the loss of all shades, shadows and images. The final detachment is death and purgatory, but every loss or disappointment or setback here on earth is an opportunity to practice letting go of the crutches that we use to support our fragile egos. Ultimately they are opportunities to surrender our egos, to realize that we are not our surroundings, abilities, thoughts or appetites. At our core we are beloved Children of God, and He is enough. 



Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Price of Mastery


A little over a week ago I was deadlifting, which is one of my favorite lifts. It is a very heavy lift, in which the bar is resting on the ground and the lifter simply grips it and picks it up. I like the lift, but this particular time I went a little too heavy, and I lost my form. I tried to muscle through it anyway and ended up pulling a muscle in my lower back. So for the last week and a half I have been taking it easy. The whole next week I did not work out at all, and this week I am only running and biking. Next week I will add body weight exercises, and work my way back up.

The day after the injury I was visiting with my family in South Carolina, just sitting around eating ice cream, and I went into a series of back spasms that felt like they were bending my spine in half backwards. Never having experienced physical pain like that before, they rather took me by surprise, but eventually I took a muscle relaxer and the spasms stopped, or at least reduced enough so that I could function. It did not prevent me from continuing to visit, albeit from a prone position on the living room floor.

My Mom and my Aunt, lovely women that they are, went into full on maternal mode, offering every possible remedy and comfort they could think of, from a hot shower to a left over hydrocodone. My Aunt especially is an empathizer, to the point where I truly believe she feels pain sympathetically. She was more upset about it than I was. As I hobbled to the car, bent over like an old man, I told her, “It happens, you know? It’s just part of the price for living life. Sometimes the price is higher than others.” I don’t think it comforted her much, but it made a lot of sense to me.

In the intervening weeks of slow rehab I have been thinking about that statement, and I realize that I was touching on a far-reaching principle. To put the same thing another way, there is no greatness without sacrifice.

My cousin was once show-casing his photos at a photography show and an admiring person admitted, “I wish I could take pictures like that. You know, I wanted to be a photographer once. I got a camera and tried to learn, but all of my pictures were terrible.” When describing this event afterward my cousin said, “What I wanted to say was, ‘No you didn’t want to be a photographer. If you really wanted it you would have kept doing it over and over until you got it right. I can show you my early photos if you want. They suck. I just didn’t give up, that’s all.’”

The key component of talent, it seems, is the desire to do something. However, this desire is not simply the thought, “Oh, wouldn’t that be nice,” or at least it cannot be for very long. Unless you happen to be Mozart (prodigies do exist, although they are very rare) your initial attempts at any kind of greatness are not going to be great at all. They are going to be terrible. Even Mozart’s first compositions were not great compared to his mature work. They were comparatively great, great compared to the work of all the other three-year-old composers in the world.

In the same way, on a slightly less abrupt difference curve, the little girl who wants to be a dancer is not a great dancer. She does not have strength, grace, discipline or control, except compared to other little girls her own age. All she has is the raw desire, to dance, and a certainty that she can, in fact, do it. Whether or not she ever becomes a great dancer is entirely determined by what happens next. What encouragement will her efforts receive? Too little approval and she will lose confidence and give up. Too much, or the wrong kind of approval and she will think she already is a great dancer and will not work hard enough to achieve her full potential. Will she get distracted by lesser pleasures, such as parties, flirtations, pop-culture and allow the greater interest to be crowded out? Will she find a better goal, such as becoming a mother or a nun, and give up the lesser one to pursue the greater one?

(In any study of mastery there are two major questions: How does one become a master any given pursuit? And how does that mastery fit into the greater context of life? I only address the first question in this blog. The second would be topic enough for a book, rather than a blog.)

On thing is certain: if that little girl truly wants to become a dancer, she will have to sacrifice for it. She will have to turn a critical eye to her dancing as it is, comparing it to what it could be. She will have to avoid the temptation to blame her shortcomings on others, (“I would have, but I couldn’t afford lessons, my parents didn’t encourage me, it was a silly dream, I never had any encouragement, I wasn’t pretty enough, Lilly Perfect won that competition because her Dad knows the judges, etc.) She will have to choose to see failures as learning opportunities, and most of all she must not give up. She must pay the price.

The price is in getting up early or going to bed late, saying no to that extra slice of birthday cake, practicing your chosen pursuit when others are going out to the movies. It means being misunderstood by friends who do not see what you see, and think your insistence on following this particular echo very silly, especially when you are foregoing so much fun on the way. The price is in the sore muscles, or the physical discomfort of pushing your metabolic conditioning farther than it wants to go, or carrying heavy cameras up mountains to get that one perfect shot of the sunrise. The price is paid in injuries, sickness, boredom, hours and hours of mind-numbing, repetitious practice of the same basic scales and arpeggios over and over again.

So it is with deadlifting. When you rip a 450 Lb. bar off the ground and stand up straight and strong with a primal roar, feeling the steel flexing under the weight, feeling the power and stability from the soles of your feet, through flexed calves, knees straight but not locked, thighs hard as tree trunks under the strain, butt and hips tight, compact and locked, spine perfectly aligned, shoulders upright and sucked into their sockets, with every muscle of chest and back perfectly tensed to hold the posture, arms straight, forearms clenched, and fingers locked around the bar, there is a vitality in the experience that you could never feel without the risk, without the pain. There is more life, in the moment, a tiny expansion of the heart and body’s capacity for being alive. If you pay attention with mind and soul alive, there is food for them as well.

And then the price continues. As we age and get older, injuries become more frequent. Bones and joints become less resilient, muscles less flexible, pain more and more a constant. The abilities that we struggled so long and hard to perfect become harder, shakier, and eventually they slip away. We are left with the mystery of mortality, the loss of everything that we sacrificed so much to achieve, and the question, “Was it worth it?” But this gets into the second question, which I said I was not going to get into.

The point of this blog is simply that if you want to be good at anything, you must be willing to sacrifice. If you want to be great at something, you must sacrifice greatly. These are the beginning rumblings of a much further reaching set of thoughts. Who knows, maybe someday I will write a book. It will have to be a lot more organized than this, though.