Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Becoming Human

A cartoon in The New Yorker a few years ago showed two humpback whales and a boat loaded with tourists floating overhead. One whale was saying to the other, 'They have no lives so they watch us.'

The anxiety that accompanies human emptiness can be overwhelming. We cannot bear to let go our fantasies about our selves, our illusions of power and importance. At the same time, there is something in us that wants precisely this: to lay down the burden of running the universe so that we may understand our part in it, to seek something that is greater than our selves.

Paradoxically, to be human we must stay connected to our non-human sources. To find meaning, we must relinquish its pursuit.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Long Shadows

We have come to the season of long shadows.

My friends' house sits on a lake bed in the northern basin of "basin and range." The 360 degree horizon is punctuated to the north and east by low hills, and far to the south, along the curvature of the earth, stand peaks that soar 10,000 feet. The mountains are volcanic. Cinder cones abound; obsidian outcrops in a multitude of colors. Adobe roads grid the landscape in a strict NSEW pattern. In winter they are impassibly slick, but these days they are hard, dusty, unforgiving.

Late September in the high desert is an unimaginable distance from the "season of mists and mellow fruitfulness" to which I fly next week. I have stopped here to regroup, to give my friends respite from farm chores and the pounding, unseasonable heat, which is 10-15 F above normal, making for a 50-60 F gradient each day. The nights flirt with frost; the days succumb to the 90s F. There is no hint of rain in this drought-trammeled corner of the world. The humidity is so low that you can feel it draw the moisture from your body.

The sun drops behind the horizon; the alpenglow burns red and gold. Chickens and quail go to roost; bees sleep. After dark, the arm of our Milky Way galaxy makes a brilliant white slash down the sky; just before the first light of dawn, giant Orion stalks over the horizon in pursuit of the Pleiades.

Population in this county is sparse, and getting sparser; this year's drop in school enrollment tells of people leaving to look for work. The presence of neighbors is revealed only by the yellow glow from sodium lights near barns and houses, which dot the blackness as far as the eye can see. So remote are some ranches that their children attend five-day boarding schools in the middle of nowhere.

This is sagebrush country, broken by intense green circles of alfalfa and the linked steel arches of wasteful pivots that suck at the declining water table. Wells are now sunk to a depth of more than 300 feet. These plots represent agriculture at its most destructive: huge amounts of sulfur modify the soil pH, polluting domestic wells; tons of fertilizer run off into the lakes to the south that form a critical refuge for millions of migrating birds. One alkaline lake I passed two weeks ago had tens of thousands of avocets and stilts dipping its waters for brine shrimp.

I was last here in the late spring when morning birdsong was deafening, the variety of species greater than I have seen anywhere but Africa. Eagles, owls, ravens, wading birds, cranes, egrets, sandpipers, songbirds, swallows, assorted black birds, buntings, hawks soared, fluttered, flapped, shouted, chirped, sang, screamed, croaked, rattled in the early light. Coyote packs whooped and yipped antiphonally across miles of scrub, and afternoon thunderstorms moved in stately pavane across the vast bowl of the sky.

Now at the equinox the land is silent, or nearly so. The hum of pumps, the click, whine and hiss of pivots have ceased. One or two fields of alfalfa are ripe for a last cutting, while along the highway, raked windrows await the baler.

In a field directly south, winged gleaners feast on oats the combine scattered. Brewer's blackbirds rise and wheel, chukking to themselves; a resident flock of babbling geese haunts the stubble, lifting occasionally to circle and survey for predators; a pair of cranes rasp in the dawn light and are gone.

Even the coyotes and ravens haven't much to say, though their tracks tell of their presence, as do those of jackrabbit, cottontail, deer, antelope, bobcat and cougar. Once or twice this past week, a red-tailed hawk appeared on a telephone pole; a kestrel flashed its russet in the yard as it chased a yellow-rumped warbler. But the land is mostly still, a slow, hot wind moaning in the corners.

In the morning quiet when I walk the endless tracks there is a sense of waiting, not the usual calm of autumn shot through with the anticipation of spring after a winter's sleep, but a waiting tinged with anxiety, for the next shoe to drop: waiting for relief from the heat; waiting for work that is not out there; waiting for rain that does not come; waiting for the well to go dry.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Recommended Listening

[NB Next Monday I will be traveling. If I don't post that day, I will try to post soon after.]

Do please listen to today's "Something Understood" www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p0048s9c with Rowan Williams talking about prayer, silence and his experience of 9/11. This programme will be available onliine for the next seven days only.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Reader Query V

[A reader writes: "Write a blog [post] on what you mean when you say you dislike the terms "ministry", "spiritual direction", "formation", and "mysticism" What you would use in their place."]

Of all the words in the reader's query, "formation" is the worst—for all the reasons discussed in previous posts, which it carries to their extremes, and because it is the slippery slope to co-dependence, brainwashing and cults.

"Formation" is the ultimate in presumption. It blasphemously assumes the right to "form" another human being according to a template or to a limited set of notions or ideas. It is an affront to the divine and an abuse of the human. It is ironic that while it is a word and a process most often used by communities, at the same time it is most destructive to the process of making community.

Communities are ecosystems. Without diversity, a community will die. To demand uniformity is suicide. Without new thinking, there is no evolution, only devolution.

Especially as regards religion, the freedom of assent, or consent, is paramount.

Far too often the "formation" process leads to coercion, fear, and dependency. Far too often leaders of communities are far more interested in their personal power and self-perpetuation than the good of the community (the word "discernment" is often so abused). Far too often fearful communities reject fresh perspectives, because their members have been "formed" and are frightened by anything that was not included in this formation or which might offend the leadership. Far too often, the "continuing formation" offered to communities is chosen because it reinforces the sort of guilt and fear on which unhealthy leadership builds its house of cards.

One may educate, socialize, adapt, even assimilate, but each of these words implies a two-way process: something offered which is freely received and made one's own, without doing violence to the incarnate reality. This two-way process equally infuses the and enriches the community with new life, perspective and the gifts the new member brings. Formation, by contrast, is a one-way street and the slippery slope to dehumanization and extinction.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

How NOT to Design a "Contemplative Eucharist"

I want to start by saying that any attempt to have eucharist with lots of silence is very welcome, but if such eucharists are not thought through in every detail they can be self-subverting. There is a huge difference between a eucharistic celebration with large amounts of silence and a contemplative eucharist.

Contemplation is a process of simplification and transcending of distinctions; it allows the ego to cease its endless activity. In theory, every liturgy should point beyond itself ("every true sacred sign effaces itself") but the religious zeitgeist is such that most liturgies, often with the best intentions in the world, end up being occasions of mutual ego-massage for the in-group, and devaluation of the non-performers. They tend to allude unconsciously more to TV advertising than Christian history. The eucharist I am about to critique was one of these latter.

It was a medium sized downtown church of traditional design in a small city, really little more than a large town. Its main services were very popular. The late-Sunday-afternoon eucharist, advertised as a "contemplative eucharist" was attended by 8 people, including the celebrant.

The first jarring note occurred as soon as I entered the church. As my eyes adjusted to the shadows, I saw a table with a guardian sitting behind it, a few small leaflets and a large pewter plate with a dollar bill on it, rather like the tip jar that desperate or cynical employees place by the cash register in some restaurants.

I nearly turned around and walked out. People do not come to "contemplative" eucharists either to be forced to engage a gatekeeper or to be immediately reminded of money. There should have been no one at that table, and if they were so worried about someone nicking the dollar on the plate, they should have put it somewhere else or, better, omitted it. They would have been much more likely to have attracted donations by its absence.

Then I turned to the altar, which had been pulled forward to the top of the steps going into the choir/sanctuary. It had so many candles on it that it immediately reminded me of one of those TV ads (I rarely watch TV) where a similarly lit bathtub is featured, hinting at all sorts of self-indulgent pleasures. Less is more, folks.

In the choir were seated the celebrant and across from her a man whose function was painfully to be revealed. The rest of the small congregation was scattered in the east-facing pews. The celebrant was wearing, incongruously, an alb with lace insets and a monastic scapular in liturgical green. Any time I see a non-monastic wearing a scapular the dressing-up agenda screams its presence; the liturgical color made me want giggle through my despair. The contradiction of the juxtaposition of lace and scapular (the latter traditionally denoting a life vowed to simplicity) was almost too much.

Everyone should have been seated either in the choir or the pews and the celebrant should not have vested. A single candle on the altar would have sufficed.

I looked at my leaflet and groaned—silently, I hope.

There was a rather sappy opening prayer by the celebrant and then the aging tenor warbled the Phos hilaron. This sort of solo singing cannot fail to be toe-curling in so small a congregation; it was jarring and inappropriate.

It would have been much more effective if someone had read the Phos hilaron slowly, prayerfully and anonymously from within the congregation, followed by 10 minutes of silence. The other prayer was extraneous and could have been omitted entirely.

Then there was a "non-scriptural reading" which turned out to be a TV-style testimonial, read so fast that it was thankfully mostly incomprehensible. Such testimonials may have their use but have no place in a eucharistic rite, much less what purports to be a contemplative eucharist. This piece of uninspired sentimentality was followed by a psalm crooned by the tenor. Both the testimonial and the psalm, much less the singing, should have been omitted. They were cringe-inducing.

A contemplative Eucharist needs only one reading, and that read at a very slow pace so that each phrase is allowed to drop into the silence and resonate, like the resonance of a drop of water in a very deep well. It doesn't matter which of the appointed texts is read, and if none of them have any depth, then a suitable one should be chosen, the shorter the better, followed by at least ten minutes of silence.

Then the gospel was read, followed by five minutes of silence.

The intercessions followed, which were low-key and offered spontaneously without grandstanding, for which I was extremely grateful.

Then those of us in the pews gathered rather foolishly around the altar while the celebrant held up what looked like a glorified hamburger bun from a boutique bakery. This would have certainly been an occasion when hosts—gathered before the eucharist started from the table in the narthex with the leaflets—could have been presented one by one by each person present and broken into the paten. [see the post "Rite for Contemplative Eucharist" under January 2006 in this blog]

Then the celebrant rattled off the entire canon, from the Sanctus onward. The canon is full of excess verbiage and conflicting theologies. It would be much better to have a period of silence around the altar and a brief epiclesis taken from one of the ancient liturgies or spontaneously offered (on the condition it is free from trendy jargon and forced sentiment).

After we received communion and nearly failed to execute a feeble Taizé chant, sung with embarrassment onlyy by those who recognized it (I wasn't among them, and, again, it was inappropriate) we went back to our pews. I can't remember if there was a prayer of thanksgiving but the celebrant insisted on a priestly blessing, which seemed jarring and redundant. Then, suddenly, everyone was chit-chatting around the altar about diocesan politics.

I left in silence, tossing a dollar in the tip jar under the gimlet eye of the doorkeeper, vowing never to return.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Reader Query IV

Spiritual Direction

[The following remarks arise from my research and experience and form my very negative opinion about a very popular contemporary movement which in many cases seems to be little more than an elaborate pious scam, a kind of "spiritual" Ponzi scheme. While there may be well-intentioned and genuinely concerned practitioners and participants, it seems important to raise these issues, because far too many are in culpable denial. I have written at length about the problems associated with so-called spiritual direction in earlier posts on this blog, in the recent article "Jesus in the Balance" in the Lutheran journal Word and World (April, 2009), and in my books Pillars of Flame: Power, Priesthood and Spiritual Maturity, and The Fountain and the Furnace: the Way of Tears and Fire.]

The term and practice of contemporary so-called spiritual direction has all the destructiveness of the word "ministry" along with additional dangers peculiar to itself. The term is deeply misleading, for the term "spiritual" cannot be divorced from the entirety of a life, and the process of growth into the divine is precisely that of giving up direction or claims to direction.

There are so many evils attached to this movement that it is hard to know where to begin. It does not grow out of scripture, no matter how much it may blather on about scripture or use texts and images from scripture. It does not grow out of the desert tradition, no matter how many claims are made to that effect. In fact it grows out of the counter-reformation, the height of the Inquisition, and is about thought control, about substituting one set of imprisoning templates over another, about creating dependency relationships. Whatever its claims, more often than not it leads to the opposite of spiritual maturity.

Its resurgence has little to do with the care of souls and far more about the cynical desire to find a way to keep collapsing communities together, finance the maintenance of expensive properties and for certain kinds of individuals to make a lot of money. How do I know this? Because I was consulted by one of the major players when considering making this move. Through very clever marketing that plays on people's sense of inadequacy and the pseudo-authority of hierarchy, "spiritual direction" has expanded into big business that "certifies" people as "spiritual directors" who in their turn can siphon money off of the genuine but naive seeker looking for affirmation and reassurance.

As with ordination, the least appropriate people apply for this certification process, and the certification process seems to expand itself infinitely. While certification programs claim to filter their intake, the selection is weighted towards those who will play the game. To see a gathering of these so-called spiritual directors preening themselves is as much an absurdity as it is a nightmare.

The movement has spawned its own pious jargon, its knee-jerk reactions and its fashions and celebrities. It has contributed to the "academic" study of spirituality, a notion that is in itself an absurdity, as I have described elsewhere. Books written on so-called spiritual direction are loaded with jargon, aimed at gaining points with those whom the author considers authorities, as opposed to enlightening the reader; there is little truth to be found in these exercises in ass-kissing.

One sign of a developing cult (or a sick religious community) is that no one can tell you in plain language what psycho-spiritual dynamic underlies a particular phrase, such as "receive all things as if from the hand of God" (RB 7), a phrase that has been employed as an excuse for abuse by superiors of those under them and as an excuse for masochism by those on the receiving end of the abuse. In fact, this phrase refers not to the past (what has been done to one), or to a particular model of God, but to the future, to the attitude which will expose the truth and carry one forward. In consequence, RB and other texts have been mis-translated to weight them seem to invest more and more power in fewer and fewer authorities.

Merton has a lot to answer for in this debacle of spirituality, as does the degraded version of psychotherapy that is far too prevalent in our culture. The notion that there is a false self to be rejected and a true self to be sought is inherently destructive and manichean; it is presumptuous. We cannot know what bits of ourselves are useful and what are not; it is not for us to tie ourselves to a procrustean bed, to stretch and chop acccording to our extremely limited and fallible lights. As Julian of Norwich notes, it is precisely the effects of what is called the "false self" that brings us to know our need of God. The person in process of transfiguration is taken as a whole, and all elements are needed; nothing is wasted.

Another fallacy arises from the confusion between self-esteem and self-respect. The former is a "justification" for mere vanity, while the latter arises from integrity and is part of the emerging truth of the self, and becomes evident only when self-consciousness is not present. It cannot be seen by the person whose truth it is.

Yet another problem is attached to the word "discernment" which these days seems little more than "if it feels good, do it", or, in the case of threatened superiors of religious communities, means "eliminate anyone who sees through your smoke and mirrors, your distorted reasoning, to your quicksand interior, or who might seem to know what they are talking about in terms of the spiritual life, or, much worse, simply live it." Superiors such as these have only the perpetuation of their own power in mind, as opposed to the welfare and spiritual maturity of their community members, whom they prefer to keep at a manageable level by forcing them to deal with the same problems over and over with facilitators of the same mindset as the superior, and never moving on.

This is a particularly pernicious problem for women's communities where the notion of "obedience" is conflated with a distorted notion of the superior as a "spiritual mother". Men's communities in the RC church are protected somewhat by canon law as the abbot is forbidden to hear confessions or coerce information from his monks, but women have no such protection. Danger signs are a failure of collegiality, flowery ritualized praise ("this drawing would make a perfect cover for our dear mother's conferences" even when said conferences are pure twaddle) or excessive affirmation of the superior; living by slogan and a fear of speaking the truth. The inability to translate local pious phrases into plain language is an additional danger signal.

So-called spiritual direction will more often than not lead to precisely the opposite effect than it advertises. The spiritual life is essential simplicity. It is learning to listen for/receive the Spirit irrupting everywhere, in everyone and every thing. It requires ruthless honesty. It requires a single-hearted goal of seeking into the beholding, as Julian puts it, not now and then, or as an exercise (like meditation) that is confined to certain times and places, but rather what she calls beseeking, having the beholding as the source of one's life, the reference point, the genatrix. [The usual translation of this word as "beseeching" is wrong.]

To grow in the spiritual life requires perseverence in but two aspects of the same practice: 1) sit in your cell and your cell will teach you everything 2) seek into the beholding.

It may help to speak to someone now and again for reassurance or testing the spirits, but such a conversation will arise naturally and probably in what one might think the most unlikely circumstances and with a person who may never have heard of "spirituality" much less "spiritual direction." In any event, one person will never have the whole story; the desert monks visited the elders (plural). It may only be in retrospect that one realizes that the Word has been given, and then only if one has trained oneself to acute listening, to nepsis, as were those monks who attached themselves to elders in silence and had to figure out for themselves why their mentor lived the way he or she did. The Spirit blows where she will, and works most often through inadvertency, through those who have suffered, through those who have never flinched from life or set up a smokescreen of jargon, ritual or piety.

The spiritual life and writing have a lot in common: if you want to write, write. Don't go to writer's conferences, which will only distract you. If you want a critique on your writing, go to someone who will line edit and be devastatingly honest.

As I see it, the so-called spiritual direction movement is contributing to the kind of disassociative splitting that in its extreme form leads to sexual abuse. One finds it in religion everywhere: in grandiose intercessions at Mass about the poor and the suffering, intercessions which ignore local issues; in so-called liturgies that are really about mutual ego massage instead of ego-transcendence; in the hawking of novelties in the "spirituality" carnival that is making lots and lots of money for a few people who exploit those who either don't know any better or are seeking distraction from the hard work of silence.

In short, the term and the concept "spiritual direction" need to be ditched and not replaced.