Sunday, June 30, 2013

III By Contrast . . .

[Continuing the article by Michael Downey. CSQ, 45.1, 2010]

We find ourselves within a world context marked on many fronts by disillusionment and disappointment. The reason for disappointment is not hard to find. Efforts in the bygone century to present a persuasive picture of a future filled with promise have failed so many. Ours is a time marked by interruption and disorientation wherein the center no longer seems to hold, and where there is increasing doubt about the trustworthiness of claims to any objective or absolute truth, especially those put forward on the basis of authority alone, even divinely ordained authority. The Church's position in the current world is not as secure as it once was. The recent sexual-abuse scandals and the ostensibly incomprehensible decisions of Church leaders in the face of the sexual misconduct of its members has not helped to safeguard the Church's place as an authentic voice of good news addressed first and finally to the vulnerable and the weak, the last, lost, littlest, and least. Even as the Church continues unabated in an effort to convey a coherent, all-encompassing global vision into which everything fits, there is widespread recognition that it is foolhardy to try to establish a solution that is perennially valid, self-evidently true, and intelligible to any reasonable person.
The French term bricolage suggests how to face complex matters in a chaotic, fragmented world marked by plurality and ambiguity. Bricolage is a lining up of whatever is at hand, gathering bits and pieces, pulling together strands from here and there in the way one would stitch a patchwork quilt, or construct figurines from pieces of scrap metal found in a junk heap. The term describes an approach to a particular matter or concern that gathers insight from whatever is at hand, assembling insights in the way of a conceptual beggar in order to provide some small perspective, recognizing that this is necessarily partial and limited. Bricolage is best done not in strict adherence to a plan set in granite, but to the creative dynamism as it unfolds and gives direction in interaction with the materials at hand.

The theologian must be a sort of conceptual beggar, looking here and there for scraps of insight, hunches and intuitions that impel the desire for an answer to theology's prime question. The theologian strives for a coherent, if not comprehensive, view. But for all our striving for comprehensiveness we know that there are facts in each and every "here and now," in this or that "time and place," that don't fit. As a consequence, the adequacy of the theological system itself is called into question. Necessarily each and every theological system fails to answer theology's single most important question: "Who is God?" and so we begin again. And again. This is unwelcome news for the convinced.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

II By Contrast ....

[Continuing the article by Michael Downey. CSQ, 45.1, 2010]

The theologian has come away from Southern California, the land of eternal traffic. I have withdrawn from voicemails, emails, faxes, committees, boards, consultations, evaluations, assessments, confrontations, allegations, litigations, liturgical skirmishes, exchanges, meetings, struggles, relationships, worries and—in the hyper-psychological parlance of our day—"issues." In this house of prayer laced 'round by the Santa Rita Mountains there is room enough for a silence in which the question can emerge as if for the first time: Who art Thou? Who are You? Who is God? There is a nudge, a hunch from somewhere back in the long ago, a stirring of the first intuition that theology as a way of life is worthy of the one an only life I have to live, a whole way of perceiving and being that is in service of the search for an answer.
To profess faith in Jesus Christ is to live day by day with the question "Who is God?" admitting that we do not yet know fully who Christ is. The Gospels give us sketches of Christ, not beyond-a-shadow-of-a-doubt scientific evidence or historical facts. Efforts to present in film and other media realistic depictions of the passion, crucifixion, and death of Jesus may satisfy what is often an inordinate desire for certainty ans assurance of personal salvation, but they bring us no closer to a definitive answer to the question "Who is God?" For the Christian, the beginning of an answer lies in the admission that we do not know. When we are convinced, when we are altogether and absolutely certain, there is no room in us for learning what we do not know. Indeed, the first step in knowing is admitting that we do not know. The secret discipline lies in knowing how not to know. [emphasis mine MR]
We do have the sketches: clues, hints, and traces. When I follow the clues with humility and in fidelity I discover that they are luminous, leading me to insight, to some sense of who God might be.  Perhaps the greatest act of humility of all is accepting the fact that these traces must suffice, that I no longer have a big picture, that systems and institutions and normative claims to truth have so often failed to satisfy the deepest desire of the human heart for truth, for goodness, for beauty.
The theologian, like the contemplative, is all eyes. We want to see, to behold, to gaze. Likewise, we want to be looked upon, to be seen, to be gazed upon. This is to speak of vision, a way of seeing: Seeing by loving, and loving by seeing, and by being seen. We are always learning how to look. Again and again. The more we see, the more we love. And the more we love the more we can see. And the more we see the more we realize that there is more to what we see than can ever be seen.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

By Contrast....

[By contrast to Tesson's marketing ploy, here is an article by Michael Downey, who works at the Archdiocesan office in Los Angeles. It is a long day's drive from there to Santa Rita Abbey.[

A Testimony to Unsaying:
The Cistercian Monastery as
Matrix for Theology
[Cistercian Studies Quarterly, 45:1 (2010)]

"Who is God?" This is theology's prime question. Every other question must take its place in the long queue. Theology is a whole way of life given shape by the desire to search out an answer to this question. The theologian searches for God in much the same way that the contemplative or monastic seeks the face of God. In the early Church it was understood that the theologian is one who prays.
These reflections sprout from parched Arizona soil. It is Holy Week at Santa Rita Abbey, the Cistercian monastery tucked away in the Santa Rita Mountains at the border of Arizona and México. Some say this abbey is one of the best-kept secrets in the Cistercian Order. I agree. It is nearly ten years since my last visit here. I had forgotten what a warm and welcoming community of nuns this is.  Small. Deeply prayerful. I can feel the pulsing of their prayer in my marrow. Even after many years, I am not an outsider here. Together we are at home.
I had forgotten how beautiful it is here. It feels like I am on the moon. The geography is utterly stark and spare, rugged and bare. It is the expansiveness, the wide-openness that evokes these lunar images. Or is it the unrelenting barrenness? The winds are fierce these days. There is not much color save the shimmering drapes of mauve and taupe caressing the naked mountains. And then the vermillion fly catcher perched on the forsythia after Lauds this morning. More living color there from beak to tip of tail than on any bird I've ever see. All that red kissing my eyes!

                                       [To Be Continued]

His Books and Equipment

Here is a list of books and equipment that Tesson took with him to Baikal:

Hell Quay, Ingrid Astier
Lady Chatterley’s Lover, D. H. Lawrence
The Sickness unto Death, Kierkegaard
Tales of a Lost Kingdom: A Journey into Northwest Pakistan,
Erik L’Homme
Un théâtre qui marche [An Itinerant Theatre], Philippe
Lost in the Taiga: One Russian Family’s Fifty-year Struggle for
Survival and Religious Freedom in the Siberian Wilderness,
Vasily Peskov
Indian Creek Chronicles: A Winter Alone in the Wilderness,
Pete Fromm
Men Possessed by God: The Story of the Desert Monks of
Ancient Christendom, Jacques Lacarrière
Friday, or, The Other Island, Michel Tournier
Un taxi mauve, Michel Déon
Philosophy in the Boudoir, Sade
Gilles, Drieu La Rochelle
Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe
In Cold Blood, Truman Capote
Un an de cabane [A Year in a Cabin in the Yukon], Olaf
Nuptials [second collection of essays], Camus
The Fall, Camus
An Island to Oneself, Tom Neale
The Reveries of the Solitary Walker, Rousseau
The Story of My Life, Casanova
The Song of the World, Giono
Fouquet, Paul Morand
Carnets [Notebooks], Montherlant
Journal Vol. 1, 1965–1970, Jünger
The Rebel’s Treatise, or, Back to the Forest, Jünger
The Gordian Knot, Jünger
Approaches, Drugs, and Intoxication, Jünger
African Games, Jünger
The Flowers of Evil, Baudelaire
The Postman Always Rings Twice, James M. Cain
The Poet, Michael Connelly
Blood on the Moon, James Ellroy
Eve, James Hadley Chase
The Stoics, Pléiade edition
Red Harvest, Dashiell Hammett
On the Nature of Things, Lucretius
The Myth of the Eternal Return: Cosmos and History,
Mircea Eliade
The World as Will and Representation, Schopenhauer
Typhoon, Conrad
Odes, Victor Segalen
Life of Rancé, Chateaubriand
Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu
The Marienbad Elegy, Goethe
The Complete Novels, Hemingway
Ecce Homo, Nietzsche
Thus Spake Zarathustra, Nietzsche
Twilight of the Idols, or, How to Philosophize with a Hammer,
The Stars, the Snow, the Fire: Twenty-five Years In the Alaska
Wilderness, John Haines
The Men of the Last Frontier, Grey Owl
Traité de la cabane solitaire [Treatise on Solitary Cabins],
Antoine Marcel
At the Heart of the World, Blaise Cendrars
Leaves of Grass, Whitman
A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold
The Abyss, or, Zeno of Bruges, Marguerite Yourcenar
The Thousand and One Nights
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare
The Merry Wives of Windsor, Shakespeare
Twelfth Night, or, What You Will, Shakespeare
Arthurian Romances, Chrétien de Troyes
American Black Box, Maurice G. Dantec
American Psycho, Bret Easton Ellis
Walden, Thoreau
The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera
The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Yukio Mishima
Promise at Dawn, Romain Gary
Out of Africa, Karen Blixen
The Adventurers, José Giovanni

His Equipment:

This is what he took...

requisite supplies for six months
in the boreal forest
Axe and cleaver
Burlap bag
Dip net
Ice skates
Kayak and paddle
Fishing poles, line, weights
Fly-fishing flies and spoons
Kitchen utensils
Ice drill
Dagger and Swiss knife
Kerosene lamp
GPS, compass, map
Solar panels, cables and rechargeable batteries
Matches and lighters
Mountain backpacks
Duffel bags
Felt carpet
Sleeping bags
Mountaineering equipment
Mosquito net face mask
Felt boots
Ice axe
Pharmaceuticals (10 boxes of acetaminophen for
vodka hangovers)
Hammer, nails, screws, file
French flag for Bastille Day
Hand-launched anti-bear flares
Flare gun
Rain cape
Outdoor grill
Folding saw
Ground cloth
-40º F sleeping bag
Royal Canadian Mounted Police jacket
Plastic luge
Boots with gaiters
Liquor glasses and vodka
90% alcohol to make up for any shortage of the above
Personal library
Cigars, cigarillos, incense paper and a Tupperware
container ‘humidor’
Icons (Saint Seraphim of Sarov, Saint Nicholas, the
imperial family of the last Romanovs, Tsar Nicholas
II, black Virgin)
Wooden trunks
Electronic appliances
Pens and notebooks
Provisions (six-month supply of pasta, rice, Tabasco,
hardtack, canned fruit, red and black pepper, salt,
coffee, honey and tea)


Sunday, June 16, 2013

How NOT to Go Into Solitude!

[Phil sent the following article, which recently appeared in the Guardian, as an example of how not to go into solitude]

Russia: solitude in Siberia
Friday 31 May 2013 21.00 BST
In search of the simple life, Sylvain Tesson spent six months living in a remote hut on the shore of Siberia's Lake Baikal, on a retreat that reveals much about our need for escape
I stayed at Lake Baikal for the first time in 2003. Walking along the shore, I discovered cabins at regular intervals, inhabited by strangely happy recluses. Five years later I chanced to spend three days with a ranger in a tinyizba, a traditional Russian log cabin, on the eastern shore of the lake. At night we sipped vodka and played chess; during the day I helped him haul in his fishing nets. We hardly spoke, but we read a lot. That was when I promised myself I would live alone in a cabin for a few months before I turned 40.
So, two years ago, I left my home in Paris and spent six months in a little hut on the Lake's western shore, very far from civilisation: it was six days' walk to the nearest village, a day from the nearest neighbour, and there were no access roads.
I wanted to experiment with the simple life and claim back time. I wanted to feel life, and understand how it would look just contemplating the landscape, rather than harvesting kilometres on the road as I was used to when travelling. I have done many great adventures (crossing the Himalayas on foot in 1997, walking the route the gulag escapees took, from Yakutsk in Siberia to Calcutta, in 2003). But it became a disease I wanted to cure.
Lake Baikal is 395 miles long, 49 miles wide, 1,642m (just over a mile) deep, and 25 million years old. I arrived in February, when temperatures drop to -30C and the ice is over a metre thick. I was driven across it in a truck.
Constructed in the 1980s as a geologist's hut, my cabin lay in a clearing of cedar forest in the northern sector of the Baikal-Lena nature reserve. The owners, Volodya T, a 50-year-old forest ranger and his wife Ludmilla, had lived there for 15 years, but they wanted to move to Irkutsk. Other rangers were spaced about 19 miles apart through the reserve.

Sylvain Tesson's cabin in Siberia

The cabin had its back to the mountains, at the foot of a slope 1,981m high, surrounded by coniferous taiga and with views of the lake. Snow had meringued the roof; the beams were the colour of gingerbread. It measured nine square metres and was heated by a noisy cast-iron stove. I could put up with the snoring of this particular companion. I had two windows: through one, looking east, I could see the snowy crests of Buryatia, 60 miles away. The winter forest was a silvery fur tossed onto the shoulders of the terrain.
I took a lot of equipment with me: axe and cleaver, fishing poles, kerosene lamp, ice drill, saw, snowshoes, tent, liquor glasses and vodka, cigars, provisions (pasta, rice, Tabasco sauce, coffee) and a library of almost 80 books.
You can't predict the mood you will be in six months later, so I had planned my library carefully. It would be an easy mistake to choose only difficult reading, and think you would only need high-minded, philosophical, idealistic writing. Then after 10 days you want to kill your book and read a detective novel.
I chose a wide range of philosophy, poetry, literature, nature books. Michel Déon for melancholy, DH Lawrence for sensuality, some philosophers (Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, the Stoics), Sade and Casanova to stir my blood. Some books on life in the woods: Daniel Defoe for myth, Grey Owl for his radical stance, Aldo Leopold for ethics. In some respects the whole experience was to put a library in the woods.
If I had not had books, I would have gone quickly mad. A book is a way to have someone with you. For the first time in my life I was able to read a whole book, beginning to end without stopping, sometimes reading for eight hours straight.
I cut my day into two parts. In the morning I did spiritual things: reading, writing, smoking, learning poetry, looking out of the window. In the afternoon I was more physical: digging a hole in the ice, fishing, running around my little kingdom in snowshoes, cutting firewood.
By restricting the panoply of actions, one goes deeper into each experience. The castaway enjoys absolute freedom – but within the limits of his island.
People who live in cabins can quickly fall into a state of depression, of cabin fever. Because you don't see anyone, you can spend your life lying in bed drinking vodka and nobody will say anything to you. So it's important to organise your time with activity, like the monks did, or Robinson Crusoe, who dressed for dinner every night though he was shipwrecked and alone. The way to stay smart is to behave when you are alone as you would surrounded by people in the city.
What was pleasant about this life was the repetition of acts. Each day goes by, a mirror of the one before, a rough draft of the one to come. You can find happiness in the possibility of things, but you can also find it in knowing exactly what will happen. It is peaceful, a very slow life, but you become rich.
I have a lot of vitality and need to do sports, so I went out and walked every day, climbed the hills around the cabin, and occasionally took a tent and hiked into the wilderness to bivouac in the woods. And to go ice skating on this frozen lake was amazing.
I also relied on a few goods from civilisation for pleasure: including vodka and cigars. I liked the idea of living in a very huge remote place but with some real luxury goods. Then you balance your life, moving between the two contrasting experiences, archaic and luxurious. After a day's walking in the snow and fishing at -30C, it is wonderful to read Chinese poetry while smoking a Havana.
Though I lived alone, it was not real solitude. For real hermitude you are alone for years and years. For me it was a relative thing.
I sometimes visited those who lived nearest, and I often had visitors – people I knew, sometimes strangers who happened to be crossing the lake. It wasn't too painful for me as they would only stay for a couple of hours, and it would interrupt the loneliness. And anyway, I didn't want to live a very extreme, challenging, difficult life. It was just an experience.
Through Sergei and Natasha, a couple who ran the weather station 31 miles from the cabin, I met Sasha and Yura, two Siberian fishermen. They were archetypal Russians, very strong, very big, speaking loudly, drinking a lot, very generous people with a lot of energy, who hadn't cut their link with the wilderness. If you put those people in the city they would be like an elephant.
These people have a rustic life, an intense and important life. They enjoy it, though they are perfectly aware that it has negative and positive aspects. Life is physically difficult. It is hard to live in a forest in the cold. When you are 50 you look 70 years old. But for sure they would not change it for a life in the city. They know that they would lose their freedom there. Better to live joyfully in a wilderness clearing than languish in a city.
Milan Kundera said because Russia didn't have an elite in its history, and no Renaissance, Russians are still in a state of irrationality and magical thinking, like the Middle Ages. I found that with these kind of people. They don't say superficial things, only wise things. They are not blah-blah-blah people, like me. It was good not to have to keep a conversation going. Why is life with others so hard? Because you always have to find something to say. I thought of those days of walking around Paris nervously tossing off "Just-fine-thank-yous" and "Let's-get-together-soons" to people I didn't really know, who babbled the same things to me, as if in a panic.
It's incredible how much mankind hogs its own attention. The presence of others makes the world fade out. Solitude is the reconquest of the enjoyment of things. The only way to be free is to be alone. You still have laws, of nature, your own discipline, but the beginning of coercion, compromise, imprisonment begins with just one other person.
Boredom didn't frighten me. There are worse pangs: the sorrow of not sharing with a loved one the beauty of lived moments. Solitude: what others miss out on by not being with the person who experiences it.
I was warned before I left Paris that boredom would be my deadly enemy. I'd die of it! I'd listened politely. People who said such things assumed they themselves were superb entertainment. "Reduced to myself alone, I feed myself, it is true, on my own substance, but it is not exhausted," writes Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the Reveries of a Solitary Walker.
In April I was given two dogs, Aika and Bek, who helped combat loneliness, and would bark if a bear came near, from the end of May when they came out of hibernation.
When the ice broke on 22 May, it happened suddenly: there was a storm and the ice shattered. I have never seen such power. It was like the elements were making war. In the west we talk about the beginning of spring, of entering spring. In Siberia there was no entering, no transition; it was rapid. In 10 minutes winter was defeated.
That month I sat at my table watching the ice die. Water seeped in everywhere, mottling the surface with black blotches. Then ducks who had been living it up down south landed in the open areas, eager for love and fresh water. Eagles soared, geese patrolled in gangs, gulls did nosedives, butterflies, amazed at being alive, staggered through the air.
Immersion in the Taiga was satisfying because I felt a belonging to nature. Unlike when you are crossing mountains, when you feel like a stranger on the edge, staying in one place makes you feel part of the forest, just like the bear, or a fish, or a bird.
The month of June, when the animals need their vigour for love, presents a problem in the cycle of life: how to bridge the gap between the awakening of May and the abundance of July? Nature has come up with … flies. By July, the air was loaded with bugs.
On 28 July I bade farewell to the lake. I went there not knowing whether I'd find the strength to stay; I left knowing I would return. I often lay in my hammock in the broiling sun. In my kayak I paddled onto the lake, as slick as oil, the reflection so pure you could misread which half of the mirror image was which. On Bastille Day, two friends were visiting from France, and we raised a flag on the beach and downed three vodka eye-openers.
A retreat is a revolt. In the outposts of Baikal the authority of Moscow holds hardly any sway. The urban liberal, leftist, revolutionary and upper-middle-class citizens all pay money for bread, gas and taxes. The hermit asks nothing from the state and gives nothing to the state. He disappears into the woods and thrives there. His retreat constitutes a loss of income for the government. Becoming a loss of income should be the objective of true revolutionaries.
I couldn't live permanently in the cabin. But I have been back to the taiga a couple of times, and I know I will experience again an act of hermitism, maybe for longer. I discovered the Algerian desert a few years ago, and I think the desert is a good place to do this: taiga without the trees.
I am still wandering, but I am not so obsessed with travelling. My experience made me understand that the best way to stop feeling that time is fleeing is just to sit somewhere for a while. I discovered that living within silence is rejuvenating. That the parade of hours is busier than the ploughing-through of miles. That the eye never tires of splendour.
I'm sure more people today will want to do what I did. I think an increasing number will need, at some time, to cut themselves off and escape modern life, then come back later to a more simple life. What I did was a radical acceleration of that. But the return to the forest, you can do it in your own home. Time is the most precious treasure we have. We all have 24 hours a day, but we are all destroying this treasure, especially with electronics. Always being contactable is the beginning of your loss of freedom. It is what we ask of prisoners ; it's like an electronic tag. There is always the intrusion of people into your time and it is horrible.
The first act is to throw out your mobile phone. Try to spend three hours in the same action, in the same consultation of time – writing, reading, doing some action.
Russians know that the taiga is there if things go wrong. It's good to know that out there, in a forest in the world, there is a cabin where something is possible, something close to the sheer happiness of being alive. So, refuseniks of every country, take to the woods! Consolation awaits you there.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Scriptural Flatland

Last week I went to two theology seminars. One was on the theology of joy, and the other was a discussion on hermeneutic approaches to Old Testament/Hebrew Scriptures/Tanakh (there was debate, each of these terms being problematic as 1) the term 'Old Testament' implies its being surpassed by the New Testament 2) 'Hebrfew Scriptures' is a somewhat patronising term of liberal theologians of the past 3) Tanakh, as we know, is a compilation that is not finalised until perhaps as late as the third century AD (or CE, as it is fashionable to say today). Just to complicate matters, as Margaret Barker has pointed out, there are changes between the Septuagint (which is the Christian version of these scriptures) and the Tanakh, because Judaism resented some of the uses to which early Christians put these texts.
The speaker at the first seminar, while mentioning in passing apophasis and 'asceticism' (meaning self-forgetfulness, one assumes), he put much more emphasis on creating the conditions in which joy could be caused to appear. This idea smacks suspiciously of materialist movements such as Cargo, in which certain peoples in the Pacific came to think that salvation would arrive in the form quite literally of their ship coming in. Among some American fundamentalists there is a similar 'prosperity' movement, which smacks more than a little of magic ('Give the pastor your money and it will come back to  you tenfold'. OK, this is a caricature.)
As readers of this blog will know, happiness, much less, joy, are gifts. They cannot be created; and while one can dispose oneself to receive them, they can seize one at any time and in any circumstances without warning. Light comes out of the darkness; it doesn't come instead of the darkness. The best way to prevent happiness and joy is to ask people if they are happy or joyous! As soon as the question is asked, the grasping nature of self-consciousness kicks in.
The second discussion revealed a lot about the Oxford theology faculty and graduate students—at least about those who were there. After the brief and very good presentation, someone formulated the question for discussion as to what, if any, template one should bring to Sunday preaching, when one is confronted with readings from both groups of texts? It was quite amazing how those who responded did so each from a blinkered and entirely abstruse perspective: the more uptight types insisting that the older set of scriptures had to be read through the lens of the new, some even saying that the older set was now entirely irrelevant. This to me seems foolish since so much of the New Testament is based on phrases from the older texts; one person, as I recall, suggested that as much as 85% of the New Testament was taken from the older set of texts. I once knew a French biblical scholar who was trying to prove that there was nothing in the New Testament that wasn't in the other group of scriptures.
Someone made the quite valid point that as soon as one uses the word 'Scripture' one is already putting an interpretative spin on these texts. More 'orthodox' voices suggested that everything had to be read in light of the resurrection—at which point I couldn't resist breaking in with a highly ironic rhetorical question, 'What do you mean by resurrection?' which, astonishingly, rocked a good many people back on their heels. It was clear that the speakers who took this position were very much into what David Jenkins used to call 'a conjuring trick with bones'. It was a very sad example of the flatness with which these texts are approached today, even in academia.
What I was thinking, but did not say, since I was a newbie in the group, was that any text should be approached with two questions, which are really one question: what are the human constants in this text, i.e., the repeating patterns  and attitudes we see in human beings throughout history, and particularly in the bible, beholding or refusing to behold; and what are the constants we see in the behaviour of God towards the creation. This latter is a bit more subtle, for one has to allow for projection, blame, and the rest, which humans project on God, as opposed to the reality of the constancy of God's mercy and—again as we know from Margaret Barker—the subversive harking back to the ritual of transfiguration that was the core ritual of the first temple that Josiah destroyed.
But none of the people involved in the fray came anywhere near this common-sense approach; it was one of the most disincarnate discussions I have ever heard, and I must say that I came away shaking my head, and with a heavy heart. 
At the same time it only added to my impetus to get this book finished. Tomorrow I am on my way to deepest darkest Devon to dog-sit and write. Five chapters have gone out to two publishers who have asked to see them, so fingers crossed!

Friday, June 07, 2013

Read This Book!

I have just begun David Abram's Becoming Animal. As is my deplorable habit, I've already jumped around a bit and for all you raven-maniacs (of which I am one) there is a fabulous account tucked away here. But for the full impact you have to read the whole book.

He also wrote The Spell of the Sensuous, which I have on order.

Thank you, Kevin in Connecticut, for putting me on to this book!!!

----------- Excerpt---------

'...corporeal life is indeed difficult. To identify with the sheer physicality of one's flesh may well seem lunatic...there are things out and about that can eat us and ultimate will. Small wonder, then, that we refer to abstract ourselves whenever we can, imagining ourselves into theoretical spaces less fraught with insecurity, conjuring [p. 7] more amenable to calculation and control.

'Even among ecologists and environmental activists, there's a tacit sense that we'd better not let our awareness come too close to our creaturely sensations, that we'd best keep our arguments girded with statistics and our thoughts buttressed with abstractions, lest we succumb to an overwhelming grief—a heartache born of our organism's instinctive empathy with the living land and its cascading losses. Lest we be bowled over and broken by our dismay at the relentless devastation of the biosphere.

'Thus do we shelter ourselves from the harrowing vulnerability of bodied existence. But by the same gesture, we also insulate ourselves from the deepest wellsprings of joy...

'...Only by welcoming uncertainty from the get-go can we acclimate ourselves eto the shattering wonder that enfolds us. This animal body, for all its susceptibility and vertigo, remains the primary instrument of all our knowing, as the capricious earth remains our primary cosmos.'

Saturday, June 01, 2013

The Ordination Shift

It is now official: the coldest spring in fifty years. I am not the only gardener with sulking seedlings; I've had to restart some squash and cucumbers, because the early plants objected so strenuously to the cold and the wet that it became clear they would never grow properly.

A rather too-obvious analogy could be drawn with religious institutions, but I will draw it anyway. I'm reading a fascinating and extremely sensible book called The Hidden History of Women’s Ordination: Female Clergy in the Medieval West Gary Macy OUP 2008 (New York), which points out that ordination meant something entirely different in the first millennium than it did in the second, when—these are not his words but mine—in the twelfth century the criteria for ordination were changed and ordination itself redefined to fit in with Paschasius' now-accepted and imposed magic cookie theology.

So much of the noise surrounding women's ordination has been spurious, as Macy points out in his careful discussion. There has been anachronistic application of standards regularized as late as 1947 to first millennium ordinations.

This radical change of the goal posts, as it were, goes hand-in-hand with many other historical tendencies that started even before Charlemagne, however. Re-reading Peter Brown's Rise of Western Christendom concerning Columbanus and Boniface has reiterated for me how the arrogance of these preachers from the north, who did not seem to care if their interpretations had any continuity with what historically was the case (especially in regard to the Desert Fathers and Mothers), laid the groundwork for the destruction of the paradise notion of Christianity which had hitherto prevailed, and for the distancing of heaven and objectification of Christ, and the massive psychological shift in general from a theology of beholding to one of solipsism. It is all too eerily like what Margaret Barker describes happened to the First Temple, its destruction by Josiah; and if that weren't enough, Brown includes a document that shows that Charlemagne indeed thought of himself as the new Josiah, and that his purpose in life was to impose conformity in all things religious, no matter how disconnected they were with older forms of Christianity, or how much they reflected magic, not sacrament, or the rituals associated with expressing an appropriate human relationship with the ecology, which it often took for magic.

It is, of course, quite a complex picture, but what is clear is that Paschasius didn't arrive out of a vacuum: he and his 'theology' (read magic) mark, rather, the birth of a grotesque that was, perhaps, the inevitable spawn of the misalliances that had gone before.

I've now finished drafts of five and seven-eights chapters of the new book, which I have sent off, with not a little fear and trembling, to the publisher I hope will do the book. I'm looking forward to writing the last of the historical chapters, the one that discusses the above issues. That will bring me to the end of Part I, and since Part II is much more my own interpretation based on the two ways of knowing model, I'm hoping that I can finish the book by the end of the summer, if not the end of the year.

So, dear Readers, please keep me in your prayers and if you have any issues you'd like me to address in the book, I'd like to hear about them.