Wednesday, February 21, 2018

healing under a velvet sky

Evan relates the words of Sister Ann Astell, like a prophet carrying golden tablets from the mountain. The mountain is a squat, terribly dated midcentury conference building with few windows and odd chairs. The plain is the dinner table, candlelit.

The word of the blessed sister is such:

Ancient Christian readings depicted Mary as read the word of God, and read it with such faith, she accepted: this story is about me. These words are for me, they are happening in my life. She read the scripture with so pure and strong a faith, such an utter acceptance of the word of God that the Word of God becomes incarnate in the core of her being.

Mary becomes pregnant with the Word, the Word fills her entirely with meaning, as the words of scripture have filled her life with meaning.

This reading offers an invitation to an imitatio Christi through an imitatio Maria. We can let the word take hold in our lives, too. If we listen with pure faith and read with sincere trust, will not God become incarnate in our lives, too? If we read the words of scripture as though they were meant for our lives, will we not also become pregnant with the Word?

"Consider it all joy," writes James, a pastoral epistle to brothers and sisters encountering the trials and mistrials of the day. Global catastrophes. Melting ice caps. Polar bears without a habitat. Syrian refugees living, cramped in their own filth, on Greek islands. Children on reservations hoping to be incarcerated to find their three square meals a day. An unkind word, sent from me to him. A past mistake that haunts us, that trips up our daily lives, as we ungainly catch ourselves on our past sins. The small rats inside our head that whisper you're not good enough. you're not smart enough. and you are certainly not thin enough. The disappointment, the failure, and the pain.

"Consider it all joy."

Only in joy will your perseverance be perfect. Perseverance, like prudence, is a really unmarketable virtue. It has very little glitz.

As I listen to James' letter one particularly attenuated Monday, stretched beyond the limits of the 24-hour day, or my 26-year-old heart, I find it addressed to me, but without much comfort. Instead, as the diffident young woman murmurs the responsorial psalm delicately, biting her lip and lowering her eyes as though apologizing for being so bold to affront us by proclaiming the Word of God in public, I hear the refrain and laugh:

Be kind to me, Lord, and I shall live.

I laugh because what kind of a low-bar result is that. Be kind to me, Lord, and I shall thrive. Be kind to me, Lord, and I shall succeed—or at least try. Be kind to me, Lord, and I shall be kind to my sister. Be kind to me, Lord, and I shall be kind back to you. Be kind to me, Lord, and I shall consider it all joy.

None of the above.

Be kind to me, Lord, and I shall live.

Shower me with kindness, Lord, and that will allow me the bare minimum required to persist in existence. What utterly, embarrassingly dependent creatures we are, who can't even seem to have the dignity and wherewithal to make it through a single day without begging for gratuity, just to get by.
Psalmists really understand the existential pain of a single day.

Be kind to me, Lord, and I shall live.

How does one read these words with such faith to make them the center of their lives? In all the historically mediated language of scripture, and culturally derived inspired word, the psalms ring out eternal in their temperament and infinite in their valence.

Perhaps if I listen with enough faith, my life will become pregnant with psalm.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

this is not sacramental theology, pt. 2

Not every sign of a sacred thing is a sacrament, rather, says the Angelic Doctor, some short while before a massive stroke stopped him in his tracks. Rather, he wrote, a sacrament is the sign of a sacred thing inasmuch as the sacred thing is making humanity holy.

It was very cold last night and it was very dark when I pulled up to the compact little ranch house on Bader. As always, I was late. And, as I opened the back door of my car to an empty backseat, I had left the halva at home.

I would have muttered a foul imprecation upon my own absentmindedness, but exhausted of self-criticism, I simply slam the door, and walk up the driveway, summoning up the energy to be charming.

I ring the doorbell, and am greeted with the smell of sake and sizzling pork belly. What’s for dinner? I wonder aloud, enchanted by the scent. Pork buns and ramen, responds the chef.

Instantly, I think of one unseasonably warm February night at Ippudo Ramen on 51st street, and drinking sake at the bar while waiting for a table, laughing and biting into the soft sweetness of the bao buns and the juicy pork.

These are sensible things, which might as well signify something holy. But they are not sacraments, because they cannot be called sacraments as we understand them at least scholastically, a strict Thomist would respond, because they do not make us holy.

But don’t they?

Sanctification is gathering at a common table, eating a common meal provided by the free gift of another, learning the common language of each other.

Surely, sacraments are the people who pull you back to grace. Who pull you out of the toxic spin cycle the dirty laundry in your brain's been slushing through for hours, and bring you back to something like reality. Who remind you that God is in this place.

Surely sacraments are formally if not materially the friends who walk out of the open elevators and laugh with you because you were just texting them. Surely they are those who always wait with you at the second floor tall table, the ones who a chance encounter in the library is worth pulling you out of your set trajectory, the one who you can talk to in a Starbucks, subway train, or sitting room in Jerusalem and nothing ever changes.

I walk from the dining hall, the warmth of Starbucks, or my car, back to my apartment, my little monk's cell. I haven't yet found the place I can commit to in indefinite stability. But for now, there's a small fourth-floor apartment all my own. It's not good to be alone there always, the rat-like voice of discouragement or desolation can prey on you alone. And grace comes most tangibly in those moments through the humans that show up to take up physical space which you cannot fill with your thoughts, just extensions of yourselves. To be in the presence of the other means there's less space for you, but you simultaneously can reach further into the world than you can alone. And that is heaven, mediated by the flesh and blood bodies which will one day meet us there. Heaven, brought to us by material objects.

Surely, pork buns and ramen, lovingly made in friendship make us holy.

Monday, February 19, 2018

conversion of heart

From my window in the library, the view opens up onto downtown South Bend, which is really not very far from campus at all. And beyond it to the south, there are lines of trees and fields, and telephone poles of countryside I realize I've never explored at all.

I squint my eyes and instead of fields and trees, I see the mountains of Jordan in the distance, from a roof-top in al-Eizariya, or from Hebron Road, by the Church of the Kathisma (or at least so I pretend to myself).

I look at the maze of building and sidewalks down below, and I wonder how the Old City of Jerusalem would look from this window. According to Google Maps, it would fit neatly into the view, as it is only one-fifth the size of the campus which surrounds me. That seems implausible, as there are so many worlds which fit inside the walls of that city, and the multitude of stories layered into the stones of the city render it so much larger. It feels larger, and I think that's because it really is. At a certain point comparisons falter. What does it mean to say that the Old City of Jerusalem is smaller than this university's campus? Such geographical information is irrelevant as it signifies nothing about relative importance or length of history or experience of either city.

Except, it is mind boggling to think that the distance I walk from one class to the other would be a very different imagined difference if, one morning on the way to class, I were to pick myself up like the Google Maps fellow and drop myself down half a world away.

And let that be a lesson to you, my heart reminds me, the depth and breadth and height of anything is not measured in square footage. Acres are rather meaningless when it comes to measuring meaning.

How do we measure meaning? I wonder. And could I navigate between two systems, like Celsius and Fahrenheit, and would the calculations to equate the two be just as mathematically clumsy? Could I convert from one system to another without much trouble, or is the transformation always messy?

If experience is any answer to the last question: conversion between two systems of meaning is always messy. And complicated, and perhaps never complete.

Someone I once read said that those who love God more than their sin have no reason to fear the last judgement, but rather they welcome it. Perhaps it's because they have spent their lives trying to convert to a new measure of meaning, and they realize that they've carried the numbers all wrong, or their sum came out poorly, and the day of reckoning is just a giant session where we correct our test answers. Show your work, says the teacher, and we realize that our sincere efforts at mathematics ended mostly in poor calculations, but, with some slight correction, we produce the valid equations we were seeking all along.

In the meantime, I guess our task is to cultivate a love of mathematics and try our hand at small sums and simple formulas, Psalm 131 style.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

from the library window

For my birthday, a friend gave me a small paperback book whose cover is black with a very pensive profile of an unspecified primate, which looks to me like a female mandrill, gazing upwards at the dark starless heavens of the book cover.

It is filled with folksy stories, sort of fairy tales for the technological age. One of them mentions offhand how sometimes recording our lives destroys our ability to experience them.

As my reflexive reaction to any occurrence inside my heart or my social sphere is to pick up a pen and take it instantly to paper, I felt particularly indicted by this statement.

I felt confirmed in my overweening journalistic tendencies when reading Schillebeeckx's Christ the Experience of God, when he speaks of the human tendency, or even, the necessity of human nature, to selectively remember the past, and use that manicured image of the past as a hermeneutic for our present and future action.

The more one records the past, the more one is hit square in the face with the unpleasant facticity of one's own history. Thus, moving forward means we have to accommodate all the parts of the story we would perhaps rather forget. This more comprehensive remembrance is costly: in the pain, embarrassment, and discomfort it causes our egos. But its reward is a more authentic version of our selves and the lives we live, a richer story, which resonates with all the various chapters of our past, weaving them back into our present day narrative, echoing what was beautiful, alluding to the painful themes, recalling the good and the bad and building something strong, cohesive, and singular.

At least, so I hope.

Graduate studies could be aptly summed up in the movement between two moments. My soul is constantly ping-ponging between the thinkers I lay it at the mercy of through reading, and they slap my mind back and forth between their paddles, battered with one argument then the other. The trajectory of thought sharply turning with each new philosopher encountered. On the other side of this dialectic ping-pong game, hopefully we will land in some semblance of synthesis, and rest—finally—in wisdom.

At least, that's the hope.

Recently, the weather in South Bend has been a table tennis match between the gods of sun and snow. Last weekend, a weather front and the perennial culprit—"Lake Effect"—dumped gallons of snow on campus. As I walked back to my dorm from the library each day for most of the past week, I got to enjoy the the trees of God quad turned into a beautiful little forest of crystal-encrusted trees. For the greater part of the week, the snow remained fresh and soft. The trees were weighed down by snow which the wind couldn't whip off of it. Each day, I would marvel at its silent sweetness in the sunrise, or how it sparkled under the cold winter stars and chill street lamps, how it wrapped the busy sidewalks in calm, and how beautiful this little wooded patch of lawn looked in its snow-coat.

I would remind myself as I dodged the ice on the front steps running out of the dorm each morning, that to walk out of your front door into this beauty is a rare delight and privilege.

Yesterday, I walked back to the dorm from the library, and was depressed by all the dirty, salt-sullied drifts of snow that lined the sidewalk, the snowmelt that dripped off the tree branches to form impassable puddles of muddy water on the sidewalk, and the dreariness of snow mixed with dirt, endemic to late-winter and early spring.

I couldn't even remember the beauty of the snow which I had enjoyed all week.

That evening, I walked out of a windowless chapel into thick, wet clumps of snowflakes falling from the grey sky. An impromptu gift of that most fickle deity, Lake Effect, and it covered the brown salt-crusted snow with a clean page.

It is important to record small moments of beauty in the snow, otherwise they'll get lost in all the sludge that the rapid passage of seasons produces.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Lent in Antioch (April, 387 CE)

The agora and the shuk rattle with quiet,
their usual rivers of crowds dried up.
Antioch’s clear fountains lie untroubled,
no jar dips ripples in the pure water—
everyone is home.
Or gone.
In the caves.

The hippodrome and baths
are shut.
The echo of the claques’
applause rings accusation in
the theatres of our waiting ears.

Waiting for a word
from Istanbul
(Constantinople).
Waiting on the mercy or the flame.

We—city of sinners—
waits for mercy.
Perhaps our God will pity us?
Perhaps our lord will pardon us?

Until then, we wait
in ashes
and the sackcloth of silence.

Friday, February 9, 2018

"of-a-piece" ness

Icons of Christ
are gilt, their rich rays
melt across
mosaic walls
or drench domed basilicas
in butter-rich colors.

Corpus Christis
hang on imposing
crossbeams,
hanging in classical
symmetry,
their weight
bearing on our hearts.

One small priest,
diminutive in stature
yet not in spirit
reciting Hopkins or Augustine,
coughing during the psalm,
wrinkles one furrowed brow
while raising the host,
shines Christ from his face.

Christ the re-creator
has molded himself
into the living image of
this slight frame whose
entire flesh is love.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

psalm for the self-pitying

You have made us for yourself,
O Lord,
and our hearts are restless:
but you abandon us
to wallow in our own unrest.

Created for communion,
you let us wander—union-less—
through pointed days.
Their barbed, pregnant denouements
would be sweeter meaningless.

Each day

—saturated with too much meaning:
memories echoing the hollow rattle
presence of our present's absences.
Broken ties, tangled webs,
bruised hearts,
paths abandoned—people too—

pierces our palm even as we
carpe,
(Good little school boys! Doing as we're told!)
drawing fresh blood from
each cosmic car-wreck victim.

You who were to fill us with finest wheat,
feed us instead cold nights,
spanning star-less above our empty beds.

Our heart —corporate abscess
of contagion collected subcutaneously —
gnaws hungry at our breath.

Is it better to have a nature
rendering the Face of God visible to us
and wind up damned,
than to be a crabtree who never had the ability to miss the Beatific Vision?

Is it better to have hearts made for others
and fall asleep to the silence of no answering pulse
than to be a stone, wrapped in a heartbeat of a human hand,
and not be moved at all?