Sunday, December 28, 2008

Acedia & Me

From my 12/19 post about favorite books of the year, this one has been the most impactful, Kathleen Norris' "Acedia and Me". Here are just some of the thought-provoking passages for me:

Chapter 7

"Simone Weil... declared that Hitler's rise to power would be inconceivable without 'the existence of millions of uprooted [people]' who could not be roused to care about anything except their immediate circumstances... our failure to acknowledge our inner blockages can make us incapable of recognizing the blockages we have created in the culture... we come to assume that these conditions - injustice, poverty, perpetual conflict - are inevitable, the only possible reality, and lose our ability to imagine that there are other ways of being, other courses of action.

Wendell Berry laments the extent to which economics has been elevated to a position that God once held... We have come to 'treat economic laws of supply & demand' as though they were' the laws of the universe'. If there is a religion that encompasses all the world, it is the pursuit of wealth.

True sloths are not revolutionaries, [but] 'the lazy guardians at the gate of the status quo'."

Chapter 8
"One great difference between these monks and today's pop psychologists is that the monks' process of discernment was likely to result in more self-knowledge, less self-consciousness. In our day, this is often reversed. People whose speech remains stuck in therapeutic jargon, for all the 'work' they are doing on themselves, often remain stubbornly unreflective. Even if they can catalogue their neuroses with great facility, they seem stuck within them.

Carmelite Ruth Burrows... regards any authentic religious experience as entailing 'a slow, demanding generosity,' one that does not short-circuit within us but flows outward naturally, until what we believe becomes what we do.

... 'What is integrity?'... 'Always to accuse [oneself]'.

By 'selfish' I do not mean observing the basic care of the self, knowing when to retreat, to hunker down in waiting out a storm... I may need 'time out'. I may need to 'cocoon'. But a cocoon is effective only as a means of change."

Chapter 9
"... my husband and I have benefited on several occasions from marriage counseling, I have found therapy to be of limited usefulness, constrained in ways that religion is not, because it consistently falls short of mystery, by which I mean a profound simplicity that allows for paradox and poetry.

Anthony of the Desert once said that a true prayer is one you don't understand."

Chapter 10
"To keep romantic relationship alive, one must be mindful enough to recognize the danger signs of inattention and sloth... Over time we found the accumulation of shared experiences provided us with a storehouse of memory that helped bear the worst of circumstances."

Chapter 11
"For me, the most basic definition of sin - to comprehend that something is wrong, and choose to do it anyway - is still the most useful. It frees me from the narcissism of fretting over my more trivial failings, even as it forces me to admit to those actions that have hurt others.

As I experience the repeated ebb and flow, the danger is that I will grow weary and more easily discouraged, unable to appreciate that grace is real, and as available to me, as acedia.

How might I be solid as a wall yet alive with movement? How might I build on all that I have learned yet not resist new challenges and transitions? Two vows that are unique to the Benedictines are of use to me here, the vows of stability and conversion.

We live our lives not at the end, but... in the interval between birth and death... There is good psychological basis for the impulse, borne out in many of the world's religions, to pray in the morning, at noon, and at night, at the hinges of time, when we might be most open to God but are also susceptible to acedia and its attendant despairs. The psalmist asks us to place our hope in a God who will not grow weary of watching over us at these risky moments, who will 'guard [our] going and coming/both now and for ever' (Psalm 121:8).

'Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,/ they shall mount up with wings like eagles'... [Hope] is an action... To hope is to make a leap, to jump from where you are to someplace better. If you can imagine it, and dare to take that leap, you can go there - no matter how hopeless your situation may appear..."

Chapter 12
"One of Saint Benedict's 'tools for good works' is to 'day by day remind yourself that you are going to die' (Rule 4:47).'

Commitment always costs, and there is a particular burden in loving another person, if for no other reason than the fact that this beloved will one day die."

Chapter 14
"... the word transition cannot convey my struggle with the rigors of grief, a residual exhaustion from years of steadily increasing adversity, and the promptings of acedia to respond to all of this by not caring...

The monks and mystics of my faith all teach that persevering in a spiritual discipline, especially when it seem futile, is the key to growth.

... it is one thing to pray when you feel like it, and another to make it as much a part of you as breathing... 'we don't always have to say a prayer, we can live out a prayer'.

'... God is trying to get us to accept a state where we have no assurance within that all is well... where no clear path lies before us, where there is no way...' Only when we admit that have 'no way' do we have any hope of finding one. Out of what seems desolate a newly vigorous faith can arise, a certainty that is not subject to change in moods or feelings, or the vicissitudes of life.

People often remark that they would write, or paint, or sculpt, if only they had the time. But this is pure fantasy: the artist does whatever is necessary to arrange her life so that she will have the time to write.

... my sadness increases as I am less able to see the world as I know it to be: ablaze with significance, potent with meaning. Yet I know that even if I am too exhausted to see them, the images, correspondences, connections, and metaphors that would free me are there, to be discovered, and to live as a poet means not to abandon my search for them. Such insights may come as gifts, but it is the prepared and fertile heart not the one dulled by acedia, that is best able to receive them."

Kierkegaard in "Either/Or": "I would wish not for wealth or power but for the passion of possibility, for the eye, eternally young, eternally ardent, that sees possibility everywhere."

Currently watching: Young@Heart (2008)

Sunday, December 21, 2008

the way of incarnation and transformation

Some good thoughts in Brian McLaren's recent, "Finding Our Way Again"...

p. 58 "Had I been forced to choose between remaining a traditional member of the Plymouth Brethren plus nothing for the rest of my whole life or dropping out of church, I would probably be a dropout today, because as grateful as I am for my heritage, it lacked breathing room. As I drifted away from the brethren nest, I went through a few experiences of what I call a 'lateral conversion', meaning I became a card-carrying Calvinist for a while, and then an amalgam of both, holding to each tradition's practices with the same proprietary zeal with which the Brethren had taught me to hold to Brethrenism, with no learning or borrowing from others. Eventually, I felt the same claustrophobia in my new traditions, so instead of converting to yet another tradition to which I would adhere in the same way I adhered to my original tradition, I converted to a different way of holding traditions in general."

p. 69-71 "...the kind of person who wants to participate in the healing of the world is very different from the kind of person who wants to leave this world behind so she can go to a better one... by making heaven after this life the destination of our way, we are spiritually forming people who run away from fire, disease, and the violence of our world. That's certainly a major step up from forming pyromaniacs, disease vectors, or violent delinquents. But it's not as good as what Jesus set out to do... Jesus was more like a firefighter or doctor or social worker who walks boldly into the danger in order to try to stop it. If a healed and healthy earth is your destination, the way to that goal promotes involvement, engagement, risk, and participation. If the earth is a lost cause to you, then you will... choose the way of withdrawal, isolation, self-protection, and self-distancing. By choosing one destination, you will follow the way of incarnation and transformation; by choosing the other... you choose evacuation and abdication."

p. 126 "The rising numbers of church dropouts don't want to be part of a flat spiritual malformation community. In a sense, they agree with the apostles Paul & James, whom we quoted earlier: it's simply better for aspiring disciples not to gather with those who have lost their way, because by joining them and unconsciously learning from their misguided example, aspiring disciples learn malpractices that take them further and further away from the way of Jesus Christ."

p. 134 [In referring to all the Christians who fought for abolition of slavery despite the church's universal acceptance of it at the time - "most churches defended slavery as being God-ordained"] "... Margaret Middleton, wife of a naval officer... She was a consummate networker, an undervalued hero in Christian history. This circle became safe space to think, dream, and conspire for justice regarding the slave trade. Their little circle connected with a larger circle of Quakers who had heard God call them, in a time of contemplative silence, to oppose slavery... Their fledgling movement grew in the spaces between the institutional structures of their day, not within the structures themselves."

p. 145 "The Gospels weren't written until decades after the events they described transpired-perhaps because Jesus created such vitality and foment that it took decades for anyone to have time to catch their breath and write down what had gone on. Similarly, the Epistles are hardly histories of the early church, but rather literary artifacts of the early church, most of them written by a fellow who was constantly on the move and couldn't slow down enough to write until he got shipwrecked for the winter or thrown into jail. There's a breathlessness about the whole affair... How different is a breathless, history-changing learning community from a placid or contentious panel of scholars and experts who are less interested in learning anything than they are in defending what they already think they know and attacking what other experts think they know."

p. 128-129 "How do we break the cycle into which we've fallen? Is it better to try to reform our existing faith communities that have lost their way, or simply to leave and start new ones? Do we work for reformation and renewal on one hand, or for revolution and refounding on the other? My answer, as you might expect, is both... Those unwilling to be silenced, domesticated, or marginalized are thus forced to engage in dramatic revolution rather than the gradual evolution of renewal and reform... By getting distance from the groups that are not ready for them, they get space and time to experiment, learn, fail, and learn some more. Eventually, some of their experiments prove healthy and viable, and before long, the very group that rejected the reformers starts learning from them. But meanwhile - this is so predictable and universal that I can't think of a single exception - the very zeal that propelled the rejected-reformers-turned-revolutionaries to bold innovation wears out, and their courage hardens into pride and defensiveness that renders them invulnerable to the next wave of reformation and renewal. They become exactly what they reacted against."

Currently watching: Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

Friday, December 19, 2008

Best Reads of the Year

I read so many books in any given year that it's nearly impossible to narrow down favorites, but I thought, as I've been keeping lists of books I read for some years now, that I'd pick out a few that were highlights for me in 2008 for whatever reason. So without further ado (and in no particular order)...

  • The Optimist's Daughter, Eudora Welty - Though I read Faulkner, Kafka and Waugh this year, one simple (though Pulitzer Prize-Winning) book rose above the greats... this gentle of Southern writers and her heartrending picture of loss in a middle-aged woman's heart - I was teary more than once
  • The Portrait of a Lady, Henry James - How I connected with the brilliantly depicted heroine of this engrossing masterpiece... and how I grieved at her demise under the false illusion of conformity and "security"
  • The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton - Cloaked passion underlies restraint, not with the usual British reserve, rather, as an American novel (from one of our female greats), as a sign of times in turmoil, where old clashes with new, the past with the future
  • The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger - I'm mortified to say, as a literature lover, that I'd never read it before now; there is nothing new to say but that I couldn't put it down... perfection
  • Thirst, Mary Oliver - Her conversion and great loss expressed tenderly, beautifully
  • Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Joan Didion - The great Joan... loved her essays on life in Northern California in the '60's, on New York, her cultural insight
  • Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White, Adam Hamilton - Not so much a well-written book, or even one in which everything is presented as well as it is a hundred other places, but the constant beat of his drum for balance, acceptance and middle ground is a voice much needed now
  • A Stew and a Story, M.F.K. Fisher - Who can compare to the master? And she is. This collection contains many revelations, which is a common occurrence when reading the great M.F.K.
  • Straight Up or on the Rocks, William Grimes - This book changed it all... not only for the cocktail literary world in the '90's when the book was first released, telling the exquisite, long-forgotten history of drink and bartending in its days of glory, creativity and elegance, but for Dan & I, ushering us fully into the cocktilian revival and renaissance we've been participating in for years
  • The Man Who Ate Everything, Jeffrey Steingarten - WASPish and technical, this at times, factual, dry book made me smile as his detailed knowledge of food reveals insight into his profound passion... I love what he has to say about the fallacy of food allergies and the unadventurous eater!
  • Surprised by God, Danya Ruttenberg - An atheist becomes a fully practicing Jew... but this isn't sensational writing milking a religious conversion, rather an honest, heartfelt awakening to God written as engaging memoir
  • The Shack, William P. Young - I'm reluctant to list this one as it's poorly written compared to the rest... but the heart and message of it need to be heard
  • Acedia & Me, Kathleen Norris - My dear Kathleen's book was probably the most impactful for me this year; hard to read both in content and occasional dryness (Dan and I joked about coming down with Acedia in trying to get through it), but it actually left the biggest imprint and awakened rigorously honest self-examination
Currently listening : 20th Century Masters: The Best of the Mills Brothers

Friday, December 05, 2008

more faith in honest doubt... than in half the creeds

"... what does it desire of us, this Meaning of our Life that is revealed and yet concealed? Not to be explained by us - that us beyond us - but only to be done by us..." - Dr. Martin Buber

Buber's quote exemplifies 'the Key'... LIVING it, not merely explaining or talking. Jon read John Baillie's book from the 1950's, "Our Knowledge of God", and found it speaking to him profoundly from a philosophical vantage point. I read it and found this passage in Chapter 7 particularly good (love the Tennyson poem, of course - and we all had the joy of discussing it on his deck overlooking the Miami bay at night, lights twinkling):

"... the central thing of religion is not our hold on God but God's hold on us; not our choosing Him but His choosing us; not that we should know Him but that we should be known of Him. And it would seem that sometimes, even when we deny Him both with our lips and with our minds, He still retains His gracious hold upon us, dwelling within us as it were incognito and continuing to do His work in and for our souls. Some of us would have to confess that even within the circle of our own acquaintance there are professed unbelievers whom we must acknowledge to be, in some very real sense, better Christians than we are ourselves. Of such men we are often inclined to say that though they cannot themselves see God at work in their souls and in their deeds, yet we can see Him there...

Men may continue to believe in God 'with the top of their minds' while consistently denying Him in that part of their souls which governs all their deeds. 'The devils also believe, and tremble'. Surely then it is those whose every desire and deed deny God that come nearest to deserving the unhappy name of atheist, and not those whose denial is an affair mainly of the intellect. We should ask ourselves whether some who profess belief in God are not much more genuinely atheistical than are many of our rationalist and communist friends who take to themselves that name. The real unbeliever is not he whose life witnesses to a belief that he thinks he does not possess, but rather he whose life proves that he does not really believe what he thinks he believes. We might quote:

Perplext in faith, but pure in deeds,
At last he beat his music out.
There lives more faith in honest doubt,
Believe me, than in half the creeds. * Tennyson

But it is on certain other words that we should prefer to rely. 'Lord, when we saw thee and hungered, and fed thee? ...And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Insamuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.' This cannot mean that we are judged by our fruits rather than by our faith, it can mean only that we are known by our fruits, and that if the fruits are truly manifest, some germ of faith must then be there, however unrecognized."

Currently watching : The Savages

Monday, December 01, 2008

Favorite November Moments

Another insanely up and down month... I feel so alive with the highs and the lows, as painful and as spectacular as it can be, I am wide awake.

1. My Sam (Phillips) at Yoshi's - two magical, front row sets
2. Almost weekly 4-5 hour sessions of prayer and radiance in Nyquists' home
3. Moving forward in greater numbers with our Human Trafficking leadership group as will as with dinners at the Mentone (Tenderloin SRO)
4. A warm, deep night of Taize with McCs, Tyler, Karen, Chesna, Chuck (plus late night laughter & coffee at Kochs afterwards)
5. Wonderful food excursions and cafe hours spent alone and with my Daniel
6. An incredible weekend in Miami with dear, old friends, Jon & McKean, at their fabulous high-rise over the water... AND Manka driving down to join us for a day of adventuring and profound conversation on Key Biscayne
7. EVERYTHING about our brilliant New Orleans trip - I fell in love completely; Dan & I did it right, savoring every spectacular meal, conversation, drink, jazz club, nap, book, writing and romantic moment together
8. Cozy nights of food, cooking, movies and talks with Jus & Jason as they stay with us a week over Thanksgiving (a great Thanksgiving w/ McCs, J&J, Kochs, Kristi & Adam)
9. Dickens Fair w/ Dannee, J&J ("Sweet Nuts!")
10. My unexpected, painful, family reunion-filled, bittersweet trip to Oklahoma (after just returning from New Orleans) for Grandpa's funeral... he passed away late Thanksgiving night

Currently listening: Purrfect: The Eartha Kitt Collection