Monday, January 1, 2018

unexpected new year

I am sitting in my favorite room in Tantur, the second floor reading room, which, unlike the rest of the building, bears no sign of Christmastime, the rest of the complex being liberally decked out in Christmas lights.

Outside the large sliding glass doors, I can see Bethlehem and Beit Jala rolling over the hills of Judea. Calling them the hills of Judea sounds grandiose, like they belong on a frontispiece of a King James Bible. But they are the hills of Judea. Slowly, a diaphanous shroud of raincloud descends upon them.
The glass sliding doors shudder in the wind. The trees outside shake in the oncoming storm, and the whole building moans and howls slightly as the wind whips across this little hill.

I haven’t seen it rain in Jerusalem yet, and the sight is slightly melancholy, yet emphasizes the coziness of the room, where I sip Echinacea tea (trying to recover from the cold contracted through five days of traveling in below-freezing temperatures without the proper shoes), listen to Iron and Wine, and read Joseph Pieper on the Four Cardinal Virtues.

As the landscape outside fades into one misty, rainy cloud of fog, Joseph Pieper is beginning to sell me on the concept of prudence. Prudence is a virtue which lacks sex appeal. Certainly, the commonly accepted portrait (or caricature) of this virtue as measuredly approaching each situation with a cool head lacks pizzazz and zest. As someone who generally approaches situations with a hot heart, that picture of prudence is not naturally appealing. Yet, Pieper writes, that prudence means that “the objective cognition of reality shall determine action; that the truth of real things shall become determinative.”

That the truth of real things shall become determinative.

Now that sounds like a virtue I can get behind. Truth of real things sounds like the dearest freshness of deep down things which sings the grandeur of God. Why would I ever want to resist the truth of real things determining the course of my actions, of my narrative or my reality?

I wonder if the reason we resist this virtue is because we believe that the real things are not beautiful enough, that the truth is sordid, that somehow we have to construct a reality ourselves for ourselves that covers up our honest selves. Perhaps we think that reality will disappoint, that the truth we receive will not be good enough, thus we make our own desires determinative of reality.

But it seems to me, right now, sitting on this very cozy couch, in a very cold room (Tantur is cold in the winter. Jerusalem is cold in the winter. I was not prepared for this. The theme of this trip is encountering cold weather I am fundamentally unprepared for), that perhaps this is the gift of prudence: just being able to see things as they are, to experience the world as it is. That desire for the authentic seems to lie restless in the heart of each human being, and prudence is the virtue that enables us to enact that authenticity in our lives. Prudence, Pieper says, is the virtue that allows us to perceive universal good, and not only comprehend what is objectively good, but apply it to our particular situation. Prudence enables us to do the good that we know we ought. That sounds like freedom.

The sun has begun to shine through the mist of the morning rain storm now, clearing up the clouds, and bringing a hint of warmth to a cold day. Its light cuts through the trees and gleams on the windows and the warm stone of the buildings.

My dad told me wisdom a pastor passed on in a homily: that we have to experience both the crests and troughs of life, the good and the bad, fully, in order to live our lives the way God intends for us to. We can’t avoid the hard parts, otherwise we’re only living a narrative we create for ourselves, instead of having the courage to let the truth of real things determine our lives. Apparently, my dad’s got a grasp on this prudence thing.

I notice that there’s a small olive wood nativity in the corner of the room. I guess there is a sign of Christmas here in this room after all.

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