No safe paths

‘There are no safe paths in this part of the world.’

So says Gandalf, as he prepares to leave Bilbo and the dwarves, who are about to enter Mirkwood. Bilbo wished for another way, a way around the dark and sinister-looking forest. But even the very long way around the forest–hundreds of miles out of the way–isn’t safe. And so it seems for us,  in a time of political uncertainty, social unrest and moral conflict–not to mention the constant threat of terrorism: there are no safe paths.

So little of our world is like the Shire and so much of it is like Mirkwood. But few are the Gandalfs in our world, warning us not to leave the path. It seems to me that we have forgotten what the real dangers are. Suffering and death are not the real dangers: they will come anyway; they are a part of life. The real danger is that of spending all our time and effort in avoiding suffering and keeping death at a distance. In so doing, I think we miss so much of what life is about. Too much concern with safety and comfort is perilous.

Gandalf understood this, perhaps. Tolkien seems to have grasped it, anyway. I am afraid, however, that we who live without hunger and fear are too easily persuaded to prize safety and comfort unduly. It is hard, when we are concerned for our children and our way of life, not to believe that safety and comfort are of the utmost importance. Two things ought to be said, though. The first is that I believe in safety: I make my children sit in car seats and wear seat belts, I don’t let them wander, and I probably protect and comfort them to a fault. Even so,  I cannot protect them from skinned knees and broken bones, or from disappointments or failures. And even the comfort a mother can offer does not take the pain away. But they are remarkably resilient. They recover. And they’re not afraid of trying again when the first time was painful or even disastrous. I think of my 5-year-old daughter’s constant cartwheeling. She improves gradually. Sometimes she bangs a foot or ankle, or her arms give way and she crumples to the mat. But she gets up, always, and tries again.

So–and this is the second thing–there’s nothing wrong with valuing safety and comfort. The danger is that the concern for our own safety and comfort, so natural and understandable, begins to shape our attention to the world in ways we are no longer able to see. Then, we fail to move beyond the confines of our safe, comfortable world. We become blinded to the way in which our safety and comfort come at the expense of others’ basic needs. It doesn’t have to be so, obviously. But it’s pretty hard to know how far my comfortable life, and the products and privileges that make it so, would not be possible without the unevenness of the distribution of wealth and power that keeps millions of people in poverty. My having more than enough cannot be completely unrelated to others’ lack.

Let me be clear, though: I am not inviting you to join me on a guilt trip. I eat meat. I drive a car, even sometimes for pretty short trips. I buy snacks for the children that are packaged in too much plastic film. I don’t always recycle everything I should. I drink coffee from Starbucks and even occasionally let the kids eat McDonald’s. I live in the middle-class world and I won’t pretend I don’t like my safety and comfort as much as the next person.

What frightens me, though, is the idolization of safety and comfort. Comfort is no longer a privilege, but a right, and safety as basic a need as hunger. None of us are wholly safe, and we don’t even realize the dangers that threaten us. What we will pay for safety or false security–that worries me. And the expectation of comfort so common in the children of the middle class (like mine)–that worries me.

It’s the lights of the fire and the smell of elvish food that ultimately lure Bilbo and the dwarves from the path through Mirkwood. Were they enticed by safety and comfort? Perhaps. And they almost get eaten by spiders, and they’re captured by the elven king, and they nearly lose their way entirely. Staying on the path is hard, and you don’t even have to believe that it’s the “narrow path” of being a disciple of Jesus to know that that’s true.

Our lives are a journey. There is a path. It leads through dark forests. We will not always be safe. We will not always be comfortable. But what we need is not more cushion and more protection. We need courage. We need hope. Because, really, there are no safe paths in this part of the world.

Just this

This has been a blurry season. You know, the space of weeks or months when mostly you’re chasing things–a never-ending to-do list, a house that seems to generate mess even when nobody is in it, and the work projects that crawl along at a snail’s pace when you needed to finish them yesterday. And you look back and wonder what happened to that space of time, and can’t see any of it clearly. That’s the blurry season. I hate it, because time is so precious and so fleeting. I feel I ought to seize it and make use of it, to make every little job an opportunity to be glad that I live and breathe. But it’s cold and grey, the sun mostly refuses to shine, and I can’t seem to appreciate the little things.

Well, most of the little things. I did appreciate an article in the New York Times (as you do) on marrying the wrong person. It was liberating, in much the same way that writing my post ‘fifteen years’ was liberating. Because it reminded me that normal is not always being happy. It’s sometimes staring at the lemons and griping about them for a while, whining about the lack of sugar and being too frustrated to fill a jug with water. Eventually I’ll get around to the lemonade. But today I’m just going to complain that I really wanted a fresh, ripe, sweet, juicy peach.

And I think that’s probably ok.

David Foster Wallace and the practice of love

A few years back, I posted about David Foster Wallace. Having just (a bit behind the times, admittedly) listened to his 2005 Kenyon College commencement address, I was taken by his candour and sensitivity. Where is he now? I immediately began to search the internet. And then, of course, I remembered my first introduction to David Foster Wallace by a colleague, who told us that Wallace had committed suicide. A very bright light has been extinguished.

Last year, I published an essay in Church Life, which has just been re-issued on their new website. Reading it over again–because David Foster Wallace is so compelling–I am once again floored by his insight, wit, and sensitivity. I give thanks for his life, and grieve his tragic death all over again. Also, I give you the link to the essay, in case you want to know what David Foster Wallace implies about the practice of love in that commencement address now more than ten years old.

I know my readers are few and my followers even fewer. I give thanks for all of you today.

Deo gratias.

Prayer and the practice of theology

Evagrius1A few years ago, I came across a quotation from Evagrius of Pontus on my students’ papers. Actually, it was a paraphrase of a famous bit of Evagrius, in which he says that ‘one who prays truly will be a theologian, and one who is a theologian will pray truly.’ The impression you would have had from the context in which Evagrius was being paraphrased  is that anyone who prays is a theologian. My uncertainty about that, which started as a certain skepticism (of the form ‘I do not think it means what you think it means’), has led me to wonder about the relationship between prayer and the practice of theology down the ages. Now I am a theologian, but not a historian. And this topic warrants historical and theological investigation. So I need help!

It therefore makes me feel like the luckiest person in the world to be able to gather a small group of wise and learned and spiritually astute people to talk about just this topic. Not only that, but we are gathering at my very favorite place on the planet: Minster Abbey. For two days, we will join the community for prayer and spend the rest of the time in conversation about the relationship between prayer and theology in a handful of theologians from late antiquity onward.

What is the relationship between prayer and theology? While I fully expect that this question will continue to vex future generations, I have reason to hope that we who gather at Minster in Eastertide will be nourished in our lives of prayer and theology, and for that I am unimaginably grateful.

Deo gratias.

 

just one day

I will restore to you the years
    which the swarming locust has eaten,
the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter,
    my great army, which I sent among you.

Joel 2: 23

This verse almost comforts me. Almost, because I long to know for certain that the wayward years of my life have not been wasted but I cannot quite believe it. Will the Lord really restore those years it seems were eaten by locusts? Looking back, I think I must just have been too lazy or self-centered to do the good that I might have done. I’m less worried about some of the really stupid things I did as a teenager, actually, and far more worried about the time and talent (such as I have) I fear I have squandered along the way. The locusts that ate my years were misdirection, or fear, or something like that–a failure to extend myself.

The funny thing is that I have long known that I had this kind of relationship with the past. It has always been coupled with a dreamy optimism about possibilities for the future. So, in my high-school scrapbook, I pencilled in, ‘Yesterday is already a dream, and tomorrow only a vision; but today, lived well, can make every yesterday a dream of happiness and every tomorrow a vision of hope.’ I know…but it spoke to the 17-year-old me, and the somewhat (!!) older me still understands why it did. Living in the present is so hard. It’s hard because I wonder what might have happened if I had done better, worked harder, been more patient and less foolish. And so I think about that future time, when I will always do my very best, be more diligent and patient and wise…and live happily ever after, of course.

I knew at 17 that I would be like this. If I had something to say to my 17-year-old self, I would say ‘thank you.’ Thank you for memorizing that sentence. For long years it has worked in my heart, and although I still struggle to live today well, at least I know what I am trying to do. So worry less and laugh more: you will achieve what you set out to do (I have, oddly), and find that the happy ending is still a long, long way off.

The reading from Joel was a reading specially chosen, I think, for the harvest Mass at school, and it was coupled with the gospel reading which concludes with Jesus saying, ‘Let the day’s own trouble be enough for the day.’ Set together, the two readings exhort us not to worry about the future or the past, but to attend to the day at hand. This is so much harder than I realized at 17! Because as the years go by, the past mounts up unchangeably behind us. Mixed in with our milestones are missed chances; achievements mingled with regrets. And the temptation is always there to project into the future: I will do this, not that, and all will be well.

All will be well, but not because we have made it so. All will be well because the One who made it will make it so. Our power, such as it is, is limited: we cannot alter the past or predict the future. What we have in our hands is just one day. Let us live it as well as we can.

Deo gratias.

St Therese of the Child Jesus

I can’t say I have ever been a fan of St Therese of Lisieux. Not, that is, until today. I tend to resist the sort of sweetness for which St Therese is known, being suspicious, like so many cynical people, of anyone who seems ‘too nice.’ Jesus, after all, wasn’t ‘too nice.’

That’s the grown-up Jesus, though. What about the child Jesus? St Therese, after all, is St Therese of the Child Jesus. Staying behind in Jerusalem strikes me as a not-nice thing to do–as the parent of an almost-12-year-old boy, I can’t help but think it was a bit vexing for Mary and Joseph. Not having been a great fan of St Therese, I don’t know for certain, but I suspect that it wasn’t the 12-year-old Jesus that she had in mind.sta_thumbSt Francis de Sales, in a series of letters published as Letters to a Wife and Mother, advises his cousin in her endeavor to life a holy and spiritual life in her ordinary, daily tasks. She gets discouraged; St Francis suggests that she go about her work imagining that she does everything as Our Lady might have done: holding the small hand of Jesus. St Francis offers to his cousin the presence of the Lord as a child. And there is something at once gentle and unyielding about that presence. The set of letters is well worth reading, especially if you happen to be a wife and mother. Even if not, St Francis gives advice so kindly that anyone would benefit from it.

It is the sort of advice that fits very well with what I know of St Therese: in the small things, the everyday tasks, there are opportunities for grace, for love, for living in the presence of the Lord Jesus. Tenderness is not the way of our world, but it is required in the proper care for small children. And anyone who spends any time caring for small children will tell you that tenderness can be difficult to muster. Attending to the presence of the child Jesus is not a way out of the hard work of the spiritual life, but is a deepening of it. Not only is the Lord present to us as teacher and savior, but as child–not to be ignored or forgotten, or left in a corner, but taken by the hand and kept by our side.

We have always been taught by the Lord in his vulnerability on the cross. Perhaps it is time for us to allow us to teach him through his vulnerability in those precious years between the presentation and the finding in the temple.

St Therese, pray for us.

Common (intellectual) politeness

The reality is that Lewis is never going to post to this blog. But part of the reason I created it was to talk about some of the theological topics that we have discussed (sometimes at great length and with considerable intensity) over the years. Theological methodology has been one of those broad areas of conversation. Within that more general subject is the question of one’s mode of engagement with sources in constructive theology. I can remember being asked in graduate school, when I dared to wonder about whether John Milbank could possibly have interpreted every single one of his interlocutors with historical accuracy, why it mattered, if the constructive proposal was good. Then, I was surprised by the question, and didn’t have a good answer. Of course it matters, I thought. But can I say WHY? I think my short answer to the question now would be that it’s a matter of common scholarly politeness, which is far more important than it seems. Lewis has rather more to say on the subject, and posted the following to Facebook:

There’s a symposium on Catherine Pickstock’s new book on one of those trendy theology websites. One of the respondents goes on at great lengths to say that her book is a) written in incredibly dense English; b) doesn’t engage with much of the scholarship on the topics she considers. Catherine’s response is basically “well, you are right, I am sort of going where Kierkegaard’s Climacus says I should… but he hardly writes in clear prose or packs himself out with footnotes.” She adds to this “especially when I disagree with all that stuff” (I should say her reviewer wants her to read some “process” stuff; and I agree with her when she says “ain’t wasting my time on that”). Now, I think Catherine is really smart and deeply insightful, but her reviewer has a point. I was just disappointed that he offered no articulation of WHY the things she doesn’t do matter. I am not going to post a comment to that website – it is way too trendy – but I can’t contain myself and will say that there are 5 reasons why Catherine’s reviewer is on the right track:

1) Two of these reasons are simple philosophical ones. striving for clarity in expression is always a good. I still remember Maurice Wiles explaining to me that if I wanted to do Patristics I had to write for those for whom English was a second language. This was a VERY thinly veiled criticism of something he read of mine. He was right. Some ideas certainly require very complex expression, but it is far fewer than most of us who write imagine! We should certainly be ready to see genuine insight in very complex writing, especially that of the genuine genius (and even in writing without footnotes!), but we should not go around imagining that we are in that category. It ain’t good for our clarity of thought.

2) Honing one’s ideas through careful exploration of those who have gone before us on the same tracks is always a good. Often before we do this we simply repeat and/or miss giving our own insights true precision. If everyone before us has read a text differently it is a good to justify our own reading against all those predecessors. This is not the same as simply engaging with existing scholarship; learning to discern what matters and what not is itself something honed through such engagement. (and in this particular case Catherine’s reviewer thinks we need always to interrogate “continental” philosophy with a good dose of “analytical” – I wouldn’t make such a blanket statement and that’s a different point from mine).

3) BUT, there are also 2 good theological reasons why that which Catherine does not do is important. The first is to do with our own attentiveness as Christian readers. Attentiveness is pretty close to being a virtue. And in Christian academic writing attentiveness is in part appropriately performed via care in expression, knowledge of scholarly traditions, and well-formed footnotes!

4) In the same vein, not only is it the case that we should worry about our own formation, but we should worry about ourselves as readers within a community. Especially in the case where we, as Christian writers engage those who are also Christian writers, attentiveness should surely be seen as a virtue for Christian academics.

5) The last reason is a more complex one. I think that serious engagement with modern historical consciousness in its many forms is necessary for Christian intellectuals (see my draft paper on academia.edu) and we are not here talking only about contingent academic performance, but also how to find modes of exploration and expression that reflect a new attention to the complexities of tradition, to the history through which God (in part) speaks.

I am not saying I am any good at this, but I do think this is what we should do and I do occasionally try to do this.

I won’t pretend to be able to sum that up. If I could, I wouldn’t have quoted the whole thing (which Lewis posted under the caveat: ‘my longest Facebook post EVER’). But I will go so far as to say that I think good manners count for a lot. Christian faithfulness, for academics, includes the kind of attention Lewis describes as “a virtue for Christian academics.” Whether an ‘official’ virtue or not, it exhibits patience, kindness, gentleness, and (a form of) self-control–gifts of the Spirit. What we say in print and from the lectern and how we interact with students and colleagues and interlocutors are not somehow separate from our spirituality or devotion. Maybe those folks we think undeserving of our attention, for whatever reason, are ‘the least of these.’ And we know how to behave toward them.