Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The Human Experience of God at Turning Points: A Theological Expose of Spiritual Counterfeits

[With apologies that the version of Blogger for Mac doesn't do accents or even italic]

[This paper was originally given at Mercy Center in Burlingame, California, at the first Festival of Spirituality around 1987. It was subsequently published in "Monastic Studies 9". It was then revised for presentation at Keele University in the UK, and this version, which appears below, was published in "Vox Benedictina", Vol. 7 #4, and again in their ultimate issue. It begins with a long quotation from Umberto Eco's "Adventures in Hyperreality".]

The Human Experience of God at Turning Points:
A Theological Exposé of Spiritual Counterfeits

“The striking aspect of [Hearst Castle] is not the quantity of antique pieces plundered from half of Europe, or the nonchalance with which the artificial tissue seamlessly connects fake and genuine, but rather the sense of fullness, the obsessive determination not to leave a single space that doesn’t suggest something, and hence the masterpiece of bricolage, haunted by horror vacui, .... The insane abundance makes the place unlivable, just as it is hard to eat those dishes that many classy American restaurants...offer the customer as evidence of his own situation of ‘affluence’: steaks four inches thick with lobster (and baked potato, and sour cream and melted butter, and grilled tomato and horseradish sauce) so that the customer will have ‘more and more,’ and can wish nothing further.

“...the Castle of Citizen Kane achieves a psychedelic effect and a kitsch result not because the Past is not distinguished from the Present ...but because what offends is the voracity of the selection, and what distresses is the fear of being caught up by this jungle of venerable beauties, which unquestionably has its own wild flavor, its own pathetic sadness, barbarian grandeur, and sensual perversity, redolent of contamination, blasphemy, the Black Mass. It is like making love in a confessional with a prostitute dressed in a prelate’s liturgical robes reciting Baudelaire while ten electronic organs reproduce the Well-Tempered Clavier played by Scriabin.

“But Hearst’s castle is not an unicum, not a rara avis ....

“The poor words with which natural human speech is provided cannot suffice to describe the Madonna Inn. To convey its external appearance...we can only venture some analogies. Let’s say that Albert Spear, while leafing through a book on Gaudi, swallowed an overgenerous dose of LSD and began to build a nuptial catacomb for Liza Minnelli. But that doesn’t give you an idea. Let’s say that Archimboldi builds the Sagrada Familia for Dolly Parton. Or: ...Chopin’s Sonata in B flat minor sung by Perry Como in an arrangement by Liberace and accompanied by the Marine Band. No, that still isn’t right. Let’s try telling about the restrooms....

“ presented as at once absolutely realistic and absolutely fantastic.... The Main Street façades are presented to us as toy houses and invite us to enter them, but their interior is always a disguised supermarket, where you buy obsessively, believing that you are still playing.

“Disneyland not only produces illusion but—in confessing it—stimulates the desire for it: A real crocodile can be found in the zoo, and as a rule it is dozing or hiding, but Disneyland tells us that faked nature corresponds much more to our daydream demands....Disneyland tells us that technology can give us more reality than nature can.... ...imitation has reached its apex, and afterwards reality will always be inferior to it.... And for a Californian, leaving his car means leaving his own humanity, consigning himself to another power, abandoning his will. Disneyland is also a place of total passivity. Its visitors must agree to behave like its robots....

“The problem [that] accustomed to realizing the Distant (in space and in time) through almost “carnal” reproduction, how will the average American realize the relationship with the supernatural?

“If you follow the Sunday morning religious programs on TV you come to understand that God can be experienced only as nature, flesh, energy, tangible image. And since no preacher dares to show us God in the form of a bearded dummy, or as a Disneyland robot, God can only be found in the form of natural force, joy, healing, youth, health, economic increment (which, let Max Weber teach us, is at once the essence of the Protestant ethic and of the spirit of capitalism....)

“The ideology of this America wants to establish reassurance through Imitation. But profit defeats ideology, because the consumers want to be thrilled not only by the guarantee of the Good but also by the shudder of the Bad. And so at Disneyland, along with Mickey Mouse and the kindly Bears, there must also be, in tactile evidence, Metaphysical Evil (the Haunted Mansion).... Alongside the Good Whale [at Marineland] there is the restless, plastic form of the Bad Shark [of JAWS]. Both at the same level of credibility, both at the same level of fakery. Thus, on entering his cathedrals of iconic reassurance, the visitor will remain uncertain whether his final destiny is hell or heaven, and so will consume new promises.”

With the advent of Euro-Disney on the last large plot of open landscape left in France, Umberto Eco’s prophetic vision of an America possessed by the demonic has become frighteningly fulfilled on this [the UK] side of the Atlantic as well. Western culture has continued to devolve into the neo-gnostic dualisms to which Eco points in his essay, the illusion that technology can give us more reality than nature can, and the simplistic, tamed and sanitized version of the violent shadows of the depths within us from which we flee. If we look at the toys we give our children, we have an unsettling glimpse of what the future holds. There are, for example, those innocuous-looking military amphibious vehicles, which, at the touch of a button become space-gun firing monsters of tortured ugliness. They are called “Transformers”.

The name alone is a counterfeit of the process by which our turning to God enables grace to change both our selves and the world around us. The “Transformer” symbolizes a Faustian covenant that enables the demonic to take on concrete form. Such toys convey the message that our marketplace culture can buy salvation, that salvation resides in technology’s terrifying mutants, whose fell progenitors are deceit, and what is most monstrous in us.

Indeed, the so-called spirituality movement is now largely just one more consumer item in the self-help supermarket, generating millions in sales as it purveys the illusion that making yourself feel good is the same as the search for God. Meanwhile, so-called academic theology is limping the last few steps around the cul-de-sac of the German rationalism that two hundred years ago deluded by the grandiose claims of scientism, attempted to divorce itself from either common-sense experience or the practical mysticism—from which all true theology proceeds; that is to say, who prays is a theologian, and who is a theologian, prays.

But while Eco holds up a useful mirror using the classic prophetic tools of bawdy humour, sarcasm, and incredulous outrage, what he is showing us is neither new nor exclusively American. The seeds of death were spawned equally by religion and rationalism, whose hybrid, ghastly flowers have decorated our mental garden paths on the way to genocide, and commitments to new and more subtle forms of tyranny. The whole range of contemporary problems from the ecological crisis to nuclear weapons to AIDS spirals ever tighter in a vortex of common questions that centers on the choice between reality and hyperreality.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Heaven Can't Wait V

[From a book of 23 essays called "Heaven", edited by Roger Ferlo, Seabury Books, April, 2007. See link to Church Publishing.]

My mother solved her problem with death by having the definitive fall, fracturing so many bones that she was caved in on one side. They could not be set as she was too fragile to risk the slightest intervention. She was in the hospital a couple of weeks, then demanded to go home. Twenty-four hours later she was back with drug-resistant pneumonia.

I bought scrubs and a cot and moved into her room.

She was lightly comatose, parched with a high fever. There was little to be done: cold cloths for her forehead, swabs to keep her mouth moist. She sucked hard on the swabs.

The second night, her fever broke, but she was awakened by pain. In her final two years she had become paranoid and after her fall had refused painkillers on the grounds that they might further weaken her failing heart.

Diffidently, I suggested that, nonetheless, a little morphine might be a good idea. She looked at me suspiciously as if she thought I might be trying to do her in, then agreed.

The bolus hurt her; she was skin and bones. I asked the nurse to put her on a drip.

The third night she seemed to rally. She was sometimes unconscious, sometimes wide awake. "Don't waste your money on skin creams," she admonished in one lucid interval, "they don't work!"

In another, her eyes flew open: "I'm getting better!" she announced in a tone of voice that brooked no contradiction.

And as an afterthought: "I've always hoped you'd change your mind, get married and have some grandchildren. It's not too late!"

Denial dies hard. I was fifty-eight years old and seventeen years beyond a hysterectomy.

The fourth night she lapsed again into a light coma. The struggle between flesh and spirit seemed to be building to unbearable levels. In the small hours of the morning she appeared stuck, unable to accept fully that she was dying, unable to let go.

As I sat there helpless before her agony, an incongruous memory appeared. I had once borrowed a pullover sweater she hadn't worn for a dozen years and which, because of her arthritis, she could never wear again. I'd found it during a visit when I was helping her look deep in her walk-in closet for a pair of shoes. With great reluctance she let me take it. About a month later she made an agitated phone call to ask me if I had the sweater and to please send it back immediately.

This memory prodded another: the question and answer in the car seven years earlier. I gathered all my courage and leaned tentatively toward her, careful not to touch.

"Mother," I said as gently as I could, "Mother, it's all right to let go into love."

Her body gave a great start as if she were trying to sit up to stare me down, to negate my words.

Softly the melodies she had once loved to hear her husband sing began to spin from my lips. Psalms we had read at her mother's dying emerged from the ever-flowing stream to sing the dawn. Slowly her body began to relax. The strain left her face. She was going to a garden party through the jaws of death.

* * *

But now a different struggle began, one more pitiful by far than the first. It lasted the next twelve hours. She had consented to die, but her physiology was so conditioned to never let go that it fought her will and her desire for every breath and every heartbeat.

During her final hours she was no longer responsive. Her eyes were half-open, unblinking. Slowly the inexorable pattern established itself, breathing that lingered and lagged and stopped and started again after successively longer pauses. Her pulse lurched in her throat, then, after an impossible gap, throbbed again.

Suddenly, on the last beat, her face became fully conscious, alive, sentient; her features contorted with excruciating pain and effort—and in the same fleeting instant, collapsed.

In the end, it seems, the only way she could let go was to break her heart.

Heaven can't wait.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Heaven Can't Wait IV

[From a book of 23 essays called "Heaven", edited by Roger Ferlo, Seabury Books, April, 2007. See link to Church Publishing.]

There was a space of about three years when circumstance created the opportunity to realize what I had always suspected I was born to do: sing the Night Office. This was not the contemporary truncated "Night Prayer" found in recent breviaries. This was full-blown broken-sleep eleventh-century Night Office with its ancient Latin chant, much of it sung from memory in the dark. We rose at midnight to pray in solitude and gathered at 1:00 AM. We sang through the dark hours until 3:30 or 4:00 AM, depending on the feast.

I lived from one Night Office to the next. Daytime in the scullery with carrots, potatoes, and leeks passed in a dream of fatigue and the joy of life taken out of time. Even on the mandatory night off, when I collapsed gratefully onto my bed and sank into oblivion, my heart was awake and singing.

It was neither a young community nor a happy one, but the Night Office never failed, not even when there was only one person left singing on a side during the Laudate psalms, the others having tranced in sleep as they leaned against their misericords. The Night Office had a life of its own, and we were privileged to be tributary to its ever-flowing stream. The opening of our lips immersed us in the music of creation as it sang the passing of one day and, note by note, line by line, awakened the dawn of the new. The night held all the joys and sorrows of the human race, all the agony and beauty of creation, birth and death—named, marked, remembered, and bathed in the river of psalms flowing into eternity.

I have mostly gotten over wishing I had died in France, which process has been a greater death. The Night Office goes on, whether it is silence singing over the cold sea outside my Alaska window or Latin psalms chanted in a Provençal chapel.
But these are not heaven, either.

The wilderness here has welcomed me, and whales have sounded my bones. Sometimes my harp settles so sweetly into its tuning that alone it plays the music of the spheres. It is always trying to play, even if it risks destroying itself. That is the nature of harps.

With friends I have laughed until I cried, and alone have cried until I was empty, a tablet erased of suffering, pain, sin, joy, which together have rendered me receptive to being written on anew.

But none of this is heaven.

It was Isaac of Nineveh who confirmed what I had supposed all this time: that the biblical phrase "the world to come" refers not to pie in the sky by and by but to "the kingdom of heaven within you."

"Once you have reached the place of tears, then know that the mind has left the prison of this world and set its foot on the road towards the new world. Then it begins to breathe the wonderful air which is there; it begins to shed tears. For now the birth pangs of the spiritual infant grow strong, since grace, the common mother of all, makes haste to give birth mystically to the soul, the image of God, into the light of the world to come. . . . Then you will start to become aware of the transformation which the whole nature will receive in the renewal of all things, dimly and as though by hints."

Heaven is without beginning and without end. It's when I'm not looking for heaven that heaven appears. It is by definition more than I can ask or imagine. It permeates all that I live, have lived, and will live, in weal and in woe. It suffuses the ordinary flow of our lives if only we will stop trying to cut it down to our size, to objectify it, to make it finitely less than it is.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Heaven Can't Wait III

[From a book of 23 essays called "Heaven", edited by Roger Ferlo, Seabury Books, April, 2007. See link to Church Publishing.]

It is precisely this sort of anthropomorphizing of heaven—but taken seriously and literally—that puts me off. It makes no sense to talk about heaven as just another place, no matter how wonderful. Furthermore, heaven-talk about a god who condemns, a god I associate with the atrocities committed by humans, is revolting. If that is who God is, I want no part of him.

It has always been disturbing to me to see people stake their lives on human projections they call "heaven." As time has passed and the so-called spirituality movement has developed, possessive talk about heaven has given way to a more narcissistic materialism. These days, people walk labyrinths the way their forebears clutched at magical devotions. They cling to the way of images (kataphatic), while protesting that the way without (apophatic) is too hard. They point to enneagrams and Myers-Briggs stereotyping to justify themselves, conveniently forgetting that whatever one's attrait, spiritual growth is a seamless dialogue spiraling ever deeper between the images of belief and the iconoclasm of faith.

Perhaps they have never realized that every one of us without exception must learn the apophatic way for the simple reason that every one of us without exception must die. It is far simpler to learn this dispossession now through imageless meditation and prayer, which helps us to "fear the grave as little as my bed," as Thomas Ken's hymn reminds us, than to wait, like Tolstoy's Ivan Illich, until the last few days and hours of our lives.

As my mother waited.

There was a time when I thought that whatever judgment was, its standards would be tailored to the individual. This notion probably arose from the Narnia story that suggests that after death you get what you believe—and for a time it made me very uneasy. But ultimately I rejected it, not only because of its implicit blackmail and because I was already aware of judgment in every moment, but more significantly on the grounds that there are people who have never known anything but abuse and violence, and these are surely included in "the poor" on whom God has infinite mercy.

I had been given a taste of this mercy when I was five years old. Like all true "heavenly" encounters, it left a trace, and from the moment I returned to myself until the present moment, it has been the lodestar of my life.

But I do not think of this encounter as heaven.

On November 5, 2001, seven weeks after the attack on New York, there was a display of aurora borealis so intense it was visible as far south as Alabama. Unlike most auroral displays, which are unstable and short-lived, this one went on for hours. Here in Southeast Alaska, we could see it even before the sun was below the horizon. The entire sky turned blood red.
An auroral corona began to form, shimmering rays of every shade of crimson from the palest pink through rich king salmon, to dark, dark magenta streaked with gold, all seeking a focal point.

Before the ability to verbalize deserted me, I was possessed by a longing for everyone in Washington, everyone in the Middle East, everyone planning violence and revenge to experience this overwhelming transcendence. If only they could see it, everything else would pale into insignificance. They couldn't fight, they couldn't . . .

Then the tears began: this is why psalms are written, this is how myths are born, holy salmon guard in their flesh the light of this blessing from heaven. . . .

I went into the house, put on my warmest parka and returned to the beach.

I lay down on stones.

Around me the horizon arced 200 degrees, a hundred miles north to south before the mountains blocked it at either end.
The aurora extended over the entire vault.

What is more, the zenith of the corona, the vanishing point at which all the rays gathered and from which they proceeded, formed above me. Cathedrals of light ascended and descended, pillars of eternity.

In some way my life ended that night. If I had turned into a block of ice while baptizing in the aurora, I would have died a happy woman.

But this was not heaven.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Heaven Can't Wait II

[From a book of 23 essays called "Heaven", edited by Roger Ferlo, Seabury Books, April, 2007. See link to Church Publishing.]

Heaven has never been an option for me, at least not the domesticated heaven of sentimental writers, nor the judgmental "make your choice between heaven and hell" of self-righteous preachers, nor the wishful-thinking heaven of being united with "loved ones" whose subtext frequently concerns the tragic consequences of toxic relationships. Most of what I hear adults say about heaven seems uncomfortably like the stories they tell themselves when they are trying to avoid reality.

Perhaps a childhood brush with death rendered these heavens implausible. Perhaps awareness of the unrelenting squalor of post-Depression slums, or photographs of concentration camps, or the nuclear threat—any of these could have turned me off speculation about heaven.

On the other hand, I am glad that people can take comfort in ideas of after-death heaven, even people who often feel as distant from its clichéd representations as I do. One such is a friend whose beloved border collie was nearing the end of his life. Jim had been a rising star until he lost a foreleg, but his spirit remained intact. Until the end of his life he radiated the burning intensity, intelligence, and energy that is the ideal of his breed—qualities that characterize his companion and owner as well.

It was near midnight when we walked out into her cottage garden for a breath of air before bed. Stars scattered in their billions across the bowl of the sky, hanging low enough to touch, receding one behind the other to infinity, heaven and earth in a single frame. The little bear turned on its tail around the pole star, Orion pursued the Pleiades in hopeless desire, Sirius strobed its glory directly overhead. My friend asked if I knew which one it was.

". . . also known as the Dog Star because it follows Orion faithfully across the sky."

We stood there in the piercing cold, caught by immediacy, a felt sense of the starry dance. We leaned instinctively against the wind created by our small earth turning at speed through the pattern.

"Right," said my friend, suddenly, quietly, with a slight firm nod of her head, "Jim is going to Sirius when he dies."
Her words went deep.

Sirius is now the abode of all good dogs who have died (and bad ones, too, who there will come to their goodness and truth). From Sirius their loyalty and love shine down on us as they return their star-stuff whence it came. Sirius has always made my heart leap, but in the wake of that conversation its presence has taken on a particular kind of gladness—even as I wryly acknowledge the absurdity of this mad mythology.