Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Summer Abundance

Early late summer: while some parts of the country swelter, others on the West Coast are having the coolest summer on record. Wine grapes are being stripped off vines by the truckload, for fear the remainder won't get ripe. The vines have been hedged and leafed, exposing voluptuous bunches hanging from the spurs of the cordons but they are still very green. In spite of the cool weather, string beans dangle from the vines, squash and pumpkins swell, and the first blackberries are ripe. Tomatoes are behind; so are peppers. But there is a lot of fruit waiting to turn red and yellow, to feast the eyes and the palate. It is said that in some parts of the country if you leave your car unlocked you're likely to find it full of produce.

Abundance, one would think would awaken a like abundance in the heart, a kind of overflowing joy. And so it does. But it can't hide the struggle and the fear of the poor getting ever poorer; one can't help think of the biblical passage 'to those who have shall more be given, and to those who have not, even what they have will be taken away.'

But it isn't only the world economic situation that is the problem. There seems to be a certain kind of person who needs to take away the little that the poor have, and there seem to be certain kinds of personalities who may or may not be destitute who threaten such people in a way that they seem to attract perpetual dispossession. They are somehow not equated with other human beings: single women suffer from this a lot, but there are men, too. It's another one of those moral conundrums that baffle me.

The dean of a major cathedral that shall remain unnamed once invited me to speak. He paid all his other speakers in the series but for some reason he was bound and determined he was not going to pay me. All of the other speakers were doing very well, thank you; the dean had a fat salary and a beautiful house. But I in my poverty and impermanence was to have nothing.

I had arranged to stay gratis in a retreat house in the city and suddenly realized by intuition that the dean was planning to use his muscle to change my reservation and force me to stay with him and his wife so I would be "obliged" to speak. My phone call to the retreat house telling them under no circumstances to let anyone change my reservation, not even the dean of the cathedral, beat his by thirty seconds, I was later told.

I was so angry to be exploited like this that I stood firm: no money, no talk. In his self-delusion the dean evidently thought I wouldn't dare stand him up, or pass up the chance to speak in a cathedral, but stand him up I did. I had never agreed to do the talk, but in his arrogance and contempt he had gone ahead and scheduled and advertised it.

I was sorry to disappoint people—it's the only talk I have ever missed—but then I never agreed to it in the first place. And while I realise the exposure might have been good, experience proves that exposure rarely leads to follow-up, survival cash. Instead, one gets a reputation as an easy mark.

What motivates the sort of person like the Dean that they are determined to keep others down and out? Though they themselves are rolling in dough, they are adamant that those who have something to say but are not part of the system should be exploited? Why would it have hurt Mr Moneybags to financially compensate me for the information and presentation he evidently badly wanted for his cathedral? Again, I could use some help with this.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

In the Empire of Ice

I am reading Gretel Ehrlich's In the Empire of Ice. Her earlier book, This Cold Heaven is one of my all-time favorites, but it is clear from this new volume that heaven is rapidly becoming purgatory, if not hell. Not to put too fine a point on it, global warming is genocide for the circumpolar peoples.

Their resistance to technology and globalization has been uneven, but in the end, even those most resistant—the Greenlanders, who have prohibited the use of snow machines except in emergencies—are losing their culture. It is due not only the disappearance of the ice; it is the chaotic weather: unpredictable winds, rain, summer storms, all of which were unknown until recent years.

Ehrlich surveyed arctic peoples from several countries under a grant from National Geographic. Everywhere the same report: polluted land, water, air, food; unreliable ice; erosion; the loss of language and culture because the activities to which the language is tied are no longer viable. "'We do not live against the tundra, against the reindeer. We move with it,'" [says a Russian reindeer herder] "Over and over he intimates how quickly the 'open soul' of the herder can be corrupted." (p. 118)

"'When the cultural authority of the shaman was eliminated by missionaries, when our sovereignty was dismissed as unreal because we did not practice land ownership, a culture of dependency resulted. When you lose the power of the hunt, you lose the power of belief, language and narrative that drove us. When we no longer live on the land properly, we lose our dignity. The wisdom of the land and the hunt builds character skills. It teaches patience, courage, sound judgment, and to be bold under pressure. These are qualities people need everywhere—these traits are transferable. The hunting culture is a modern tool kit to adapt to the world. There is no better measure of genius than to survive here, to be hospitable to what others think of as an inhospitable climate, to become one with the place, not to conquer. We Inuit embrace the cold. I don't ever remember being cold, just happy.'" (pp. 142-143)

Life has been torn from its moorings. "Culture is 'a product of biology,' biologist E.O. Wilson has written. When we lose an ecosystem we are losing our thumbprint uniqueness, our way of knowing the world and our strategies for survival." (p. 227)

"The biological and metaphysical were understood as wholes within wholes, the one never precluding the other." (p. 232)

"'The world is peaceful on its own,'" remarks one of Ehrlich's Greenlander friends, "'if only we didn't bother it. People don't need power. When I look at our dogs running, that is their happiness, and for all of us, to eat enough, that is happiness as well. . . .We used to get walrus up there. Now we get musk ox. But the meat of both animals is good. [However, only the marine mammals have the vitamins and minerals necessary to life that fruit and vegetables supply in the south]. Oh, it is so beautiful up there! Yes, I think we will survive somehow, maybe just on beauty.'" (pp. 278-279)

Ehrlich acts as surrogate on behalf of all of us when she writes, "I want to beg forgiveness from my Greenland friends for the vandalism and greed of the so-called developed nations, where only profit counts, where decisions are not made with the biological health of the planet in mind but only the material wealth of a few. Where true poverty is enforced on even the wealthy, where the social standard is to live and work in a fixed place. Where the moral implications and social injustices of the crushing demands of extreme capitalism are daily overlooked and denied. Where the 'I' is king; were the 'getting' is done at the expense of others; where the concept of 'we' is considered a form of weakness.

"It was here, in Greenland, that I had my first taste of true civilization: where the demands of capitalism are held to a minimum. Where the conscious choices of what an ice age society might keep of its traditions were added to what they deemed useful from the 21st century—harpoons and cell phones; helicopters and kayaks; and far beyond a simple striving for survival, gratitude for the natural beauty of the place and its importance in their daily lives.

"Here, people's basic needs are met first; matters of buying and selling come last, if at all. This is a society based on sharing, self-discipline, patience, modesty, resilience, flexibility, and humor, and a sophisticated understanding of the circular continuity, the transmission of ecological knowledge that keeps traditions alive." (p. 281)

Read this book. It will shock you; it will make you weep; it should make you ashamed. Tell all your friends about it. These cultures will shortly disappear along with the character lessons we in more temperate climes so badly need to learn about basic human decency, and what it means to be human in the first place.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Prayer is Political

As Desmond Tutu is wont to say, prayer is political. "If governments knew how subversive is contemplative prayer, they would ban it." As the church banned it at the Council of Constance. (see "Jesus in the Balance" posted February and March in this blog). The degree to which a person is committed to control is the degree to which s/he will be threatened by contemplative prayer. All one has to do is to sit in silent prayer, open, empty, for someone whose life depends on control to freak out. Prayer cannot be controlled even by the one who prays, nor should the attempt be made. Prayer tears a hole in the membrane of the universe in which we tend to encapsulate ourselves. Anything can happen. Contemplative prayer played a large role in defeating apartheid.

To commit to prayer raises questions, hard questions, for oneself, for those around one. Just to make the effort—never mind how one may feel one fails—is shattering to everyday perceptions, values and norms, one's own and that of others. To sit in silence is to invite all sorts of projections, some of them good, some of them bad. There is holy envy, there is holy jealousy as well as destructive envy, destructive jealousy. Silent prayer rejects noise, manipulation, consuming, planning, sorting, evaluating; all emotions, ideas, thoughts, however trivial or seemingly significant, must be let go into the silence. How could we not be threatened—the pray-er as well as those in whose context the prayer is undertaken, no matter how hidden it might be. To pray thus is the giving up of one's life to gain it, the basic paradox of religion.

One does not sit in silent prayer to make a political point, however. This is not what Archbishop Tutu means. It is simply the willingness to try, to stake one's life on "the things not seen" which some people interpret as provocative.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

The Worst Passion?

Sorry for the late post. Not only has it been busy, but I have been recovering from delivering Writing the Icon of the Heart to the publisher (it has been enthusiastically accepted, thank God), among other events and revelations.

I don't write much about the agony of sin, but this past week has offered much to reflect on.

Everyone seems to have their besetting capital sin (mine is probably accedia). There also seem to be capital sins that are less real for each person, and because they don't play a large part in that person's own interior life, they tend to blindside when one is on the receiving end. In my case I am usually blindsided by jealousy.

I simply can't imagine anyone being jealous of me (this take on myself is not due to virtue!) and when someone is jealous of me—or envious, which is different—I simply find it incomprehensible. This is due in part, I think, to the criterion I hold very dear that any kind of ownership of another human being is utterly repulsive. I probably carry this to extremes: I want to create a space where people can feel free to be themselves in relationships, free to come and go; free to agree or disagree. If I introduce someone to a third party, and this new relationship blossoms, I rejoice. if I feel inadequate to help someone and introduce them to someone who can and, again, the relationship flourishes, then I flourish too. This doesn't mean I don't feel a pang when someone abandons me; of course I do. But I want the best for them and I know that I cannot know what that is.

As I have written over and over again in this blog and elsewhere, spiritual maturity is not about dependence; it is about an incoercible autonomy based on the free-fall of faith lived for the sake of the community. It is not a life cut, pasted and decoupaged from holy sayings of other people, or from the stereotypes held by one's so-called spiritual director. It is about taking the living Word as given and working out one's own salvation in fear and trembling in solitude and interior silence—and communities are only as healthy as the solitudes that make them up.

It could possibly be said that all the capital sins are contained in each capital sin, but jealousy seems to be one of the most violent. In a sense it is double murder and sometimes leads to murder, because it is about possession (in all the senses; it is demonic): it reduces the desired person to a cipher chained and imprisoned in the jealous person's imagination; and the jealous person reduces the one at whom the jealousy is aimed to a wished-for corpse. Jealousy will stop at nothing: projection, slander, mockery, deceit, abuse of all sorts; it will sacrifice the well-being of an entire community to eliminate the imagined enemy in order to satisfy its lust. Jealousy is petty and spiteful; it is an ever more inward turning spiral that devours the jealous person; jealousy is a dementor. Jealous people need tears and prayer, ours, since jealousy precludes these gifts in them.

Like anger, jealousy is a form of insanity and it drives people to do insane things dressed up in the best possible tea-party clothes. Contrary to appearances jealous people are drowning in green bile. When a person is possessed by both envy (of another person's gifts, for example) and jealousy (of another person's relationship with a person the jealous person wants to possess) it is a pathetic, pitiable sight, even as one stands in the middle of all the wreckage.

Jealousy is one passion I simply find incredible: I have no idea how to deal with it when it is aimed at me. I could use some help here.