The Yin and Yang of Aging

Years ago I team-taught a course on aging. We, profs as well as students, were all young and we studied issues about the elderly in contemporary society. Today I write not about “them” but about “us”. I write less from study than from experience, my own and that of friends and family.

I want to explore some of the “yins” and “yangs” of aging these days – of entering the third stage, becoming elders or senior citizens, or any of the other ways we talk about aging, even about approaching death, though we still don’t talk enough about that.

Clearly my experience of aging is not yours nor that of spouses and friends. For there is something inescapably unique about how each of us moves through the stages of our lives, even if there is significant similarity in the stages. Still, there are generalizations we may make about each of these stages and, more fundamentally, about the fact that human life takes time, is bounded by time, must move through time’s stages even when we may wish to leap ahead or retreat back, slow the pace or speed it up.

As I’m using the terms, “yin” refers to the receptive or passive or suffering dimensions of human consciousness and experience. (By “suffering” I mean both what we typically mean, but also the broader meaning of the Latin “passio” as both receiving and enduring.) Some explain yin as the “feminine” dimension, though that is problematic since women clearly embody and experience yang as much as yin. For yang refers to the more active or assertive, even aggressive, and the so-called “masculine” dimensions of life. Together they are, if you will, the tough and the tender or any similar set of words which seek to capture this fundamental tension of contraries. The terms are from ancient China and are central to Taoist philosophy. They have recently gained a certain currency in Western culture.

Classical Hindu thought describes “four stages of life” that are also helpful for thinking about aging. We first live early years of training and learning; then we live through the long period of being a “householder,” rearing children, working in the world, caring for family and society, and generally being responsible and busy; third is the stage of gradual retirement from those activities and increasing focus on the soul’s journey; and finally there is a stage of complete renunciation, going off into a forest hermitage or on a solitary trek like the Buddha’s.

Very few are called directly to that last stage, though some, like Prince Siddhartha, may experience its call while quite young, and all of us will eventually experience it as we slip into final frailty and death.

For most of us, then, retirement and aging are something like that third Hindu stage where we have left many of the immediate responsibilities of the householder yet are still involved to some degree in family and world — perhaps by continuing careers or by new responsibilities. The degree of such continuing engagement will vary, as too the degree of retreat from such engagement. The balance of yin with yang will shift with our situation and opportunities, our health and talents.

The most obvious forms of yin for the aging are physical diminishments – slowing down, aches and pains, sometimes serious illnesses, typically various forms of bone loss and memory loss. But there are also more enjoyable forms of yin – more time for reading and relaxation, time with friends and for travel, even if just for walks in the park. More broadly there is, as in the Hindu scheme, more time for care of the soul – for real leisure (not just entertainment) and various forms of contemplation, for poetry and song and perhaps prayer.

As for yang, in addition to continuing work and family responsibilities there is the responsibility that elders have for the human community – something sorely needed these days. We elders have all gained various forms (big but mostly small) of what should be called wisdom as we have moved through the stages of our lives. Nor do I mean something esoteric by that term. Grandmothers, to take but one widely acknowledged instance, continue to provide caring hearts and prudent advice to their children and grandchildren – as do grandfathers. Senior citizens are mainstays in voluntary organizations – from membership on boards to service in soup kitchens, from leadership in churches to work with schools and hospitals, and in many forms of social activism. Jimmy Carter is perhaps our most visible national icon of such senior wisdom and service. And thankfully there are millions like him in this country, giving back every day in ways both big and small.

Yet there is also a far less healthy and helpful form of yang that plagues the process of aging these days. For too many, as I see it – and as I see it portrayed in drug and travel advertisements or news features about some 70-year-old weightlifter – are pressured to feel that they must continue to be very active even if in a changed form: home office instead of workplace, or constant travel and a mandatory club and social round. Such continued and sometimes even expanded activity may, of course, be the fate of a particularly energetic biology or of an ongoing responsibility even when energy is lacking. This could be a good fortune, but it may also be a curse – as it would seem to be for so many of the world’s poor who can’t even dream of retiring.

Yet the fate or necessity of continuing full-time responsibilities is quite different from the more culturally driven compulsion to activity when it is no longer necessary.

Such compulsion is rooted largely in our culture’s fear of inactivity and passivity (of yin), with the corresponding rejection of real leisure — of simply being present, of listening, of wide-ranging admiration and deeper contemplative attention. The best thing I ever read about the foundational human good of leisure, and the best critique of our cultural compulsion to activity and so-called “productivity,” is Leisure, the Basis of Culture by the German Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper. It was written after World War II as a critique of the German cultural ideal of “total work” that came to its fullest and most damnable embodiment in the Nazi program for total war production. Yet, as the book details, this ideal of total work – interrupted only by the worker’s need for rest and entertainment – has far deeper roots both in Enlightenment (scientific/technical) rationalism and even earlier in “the Protestant Ethic” which Max Weber saw as foundational to “the Spirit of Capitalism.” Pieper’s book was published in English in the late 1940s and has been in print ever since. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

I have friends and colleagues who refuse to retire or hope to delay the date as long as possible. I do not judge the uniqueness of their situation and spirit, but I nonetheless wonder whether cultural compulsions and fears are not strongly at work in such inclinations. Some say quite explicitly that they don’t know what they’d do without the harness of the workplace – though they rarely use a word like “harness.”

When asked why I retired eight years back I typically say that I wanted to “retire while I still had legs.” Still, in other words, had the strength for activities I’d long done and for new activities I’d wanted to take up. That response has been acceptable, to myself as much as others, since it gives expression to the shared cultural emphasis on yang. What I often failed to add, since it seemed too pious or romantic, was that I also wanted time for contemplation, for what Hindu wisdom calls attention to the soul – to both atman (soul) and to Atman-Brahman, the Great Soul which we call God. For I have long wanted, even hungered for a new or much renewed dimension of prayer in my life, even as I still find taking up the passive or attentive disciplines of prayer very challenging.  I suspect this  hunger goes back at least to my early years as a member of an “active” religious congregation of teachers that also prized a monastic style of community and stability.

As I see it, then, an ideal aging involves both yin and yang. BOTH the richness of continuing activity – especially those activities that bring joy and those that serve the needs of our world – AND the joys of contemplative leisure. Yet that balance is rarely easy. And it takes time. For the transition from householder to retired (as the earlier transition from school years into adult responsibilities) typically involves much discernment along with trial and error. Even when the transition is sudden – from full-time to free time, and perhaps especially when retirement has been forced – it will still take time for the new stage to find its shape and substance: time and experiment, action and suffering.

Our “retired” forms of yin are not simply nor even primarily matters of physical slowing. They are far more matters of spirit or soul. Thus they may well involve declining spiritual energy and even the lure of laziness and other seductions from the “noon-day devil.” Yet they can (and should) also involve the emergence, slow or sudden, of unsuspected spiritual energies and the attention needed for their development.

Some may appear to escape the diminishments of aging, may seem carried by energy and culture in a seamlessly smooth transition into life’s third stage. Yet I wonder about that. My guess is that even for such folks there is an inner drama which they hide even from themselves. Yet repression rarely works for long. The real challenge is to move on through time without illusion, especially without the illusions of great leaps forward or nostalgic retreats to past ways. For most of us the ongoing drama of this third stage — and it is ongoing, not static but further phases or transitions, often with real struggle, leading eventually to death – this third stage has its joys as well as its sufferings, its confusions as well as its wisdom. And the specific joys and sufferings experienced by each of us are themselves the signs or sacraments of our unique aging, the very real occasions for thought and prayer and often for service.

One immensely important resource that Western culture adds to Asian ideas about aging is Christianity’s deeply affirmative appreciation of time. Of course, as already suggested, the positive Christian evaluation of time has in the modern era too often been reduced to little more than an exaggerated emphasis on action, on yang, justified by various notions about progress, some quite silly but others very dangerous (think both Communism and savage capitalism, or the supposedly inevitable “developments” like nuclear weapons). Yet despite this widespread contemporary aberration, we Christians do believe in the fundamental goodness of time, and thus the goodness of all of life’s stages and phases, all of time’s yins and yangs. For God created time and “knew that it was good.” And God even more fully affirmed time by  entering completely into its reality in the  life of Jesus.

It is only through the stages of our lives that we come to realize time’s goodness. That is especially true in the stage of retirement where the quiet disciplines of a more contemplative form of life are more crucial than ever.

Yet such brief mention of Christian faith in time’s goodness can seem little more than a spiritual banality or even a mystification. It is neither. Any banality or mystification would be a result of our own failure to appreciate what is really good, our failure to live within and through the yins and the yangs of aging.

Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” – Simone Weil

A Philosophical Forecast for 2018 or Not Moving Too Quickly From The Many to the One

Reader Alert: I probably shouldn’t post this writing. It’s too long, too abstract, too scattered. Yet it’s taken me so long to draft and redraft — and then I had a week of computer problems — so I  post it with a “caveat lector” warning: feel free to pass on reading or get ready for a slow, but hopefully interesting ride.

Here is my forecast for 2018. There will be much evil this coming year, and much good. I’d like to say “much more good,” but that’s a matter for faith, not philosophy.  I can be even more precise: there will be many evils and many goods. I can also, using ancient categories, also predict that many fates will be realized during 2018, and that will mean, for some fates, the experience of many furies. Finally I can also confess my faith that whatever happens in 2018, God will continue to “write straight with crooked lines.”

I need to keep such pretty obvious forecasts in mind through the coming months lest fancy distract me, as it so often does, from facts.

Yet the effort to understand these forecasts led me back to “the problem of the one and the many.” (Such is the strange fate of philosophy!)

I first heard about the “problem of the one and the many” in a college course on “metaphysics.” Even by the end of the course, I didn’t have a clue about what metaphysics meant. Yet the priest-professor was a wonderfully quirky elder. Short and bald, with granny classes over sharply-focused eyes and a weirdly quizzical smile. A mix of Yoda and Merlin. On the first day he announced that the “problem of the one and the many” remains the central problem of philosophy. Then he said that the first problem with this problem is that the problem itself is hard to understand,  Rather it just “has to hit you.” At which point (I said he was quirky) he slapped himself on the forehead and fell over backwards. It was, I now realize, a well-practiced routine.  We were shocked and then we laughed. Yet he laughed last, knowing that none of us really “got it.”  But he hoped his pedagogical comedy might help us when we finally began to “get it.”

Years later I remember the moment I began to get it. I was walking the dog after a morning of reading and writing. Perhaps under the influence of wine with lunch or a relaxing puff. Mid-walk, while the dog stopped for business next to a tree, I was suddenly stunned by a question as if from the heavens: why does “one” always seem more important than “two”? And only now, in telling this story, do I recognize a small symbol in that pee-tree with its one trunk, many branches and still more roots!

I know the question “why does one seem more important than two?” may sound very odd, but think about it. E pluribus Unum. One nation under God. And so One God. Perhaps even One Holy Catholic Church. Or for more modern tastes, “my identity” or “my one self” and then perhaps one “marriage of true minds.” And then (if you’re so inclined) think about the mathematical importance of “1,” or the philosophical centrality of “being,” or the (for some) religious importance of “resting in Thee.”

It would seem that the human heart (as well as our mind and spirit) is indeed restless until it finds forms of integration or unity or “oneness” – whether within (in soul/psyche), or in relationships (in marriage and other forms of com-unity). The “soul”, or these days the “self,” is simply one of our many ways of trying to talk about the unity or “oneness” of our personal existence. For who does not fear schizophrenia or other forms of personal disintegration. And who does not prefer some form of “com-unity” in our relationships to division and fragmentation.

Yet (and now “the many” returns) we’d have a pretty thin self and pretty empty community if our various unities did not include significant diversity. What would one’s self or one’s community be without a history of many experiences and relationships, without memories to hold that history together, and without hope for a plenty-full future?

At the time of my dog-walk moment, this newly-minted professor was swept along by strong cultural currents affirming all kinds of diversity. We wanted to break free from what seemed (and often were) the procrustean “unities” or the “conformity” imposed by “the system.” Thus the question came: why was “one” so important? What about two and three, or four and more? What about those many claims to diversity (racial and religious, ethnic and gendered) moving through the “60’s” and ever since? What about so many different people and places, causes and events; the many memories encompassing them and many hopes for their futures? We needed, we correctly felt and still feel, an awareness of significant diversity to break through forced and phony unities.

These days, in my dotage, I tend to worry more about recovering or finding real unity in the midst of so many divisions and so much fragmentation. Yet I also remain deeply concerned about superficial and phony “unities” — whether national nativism or the universalism of the global market; whether consumerism or racism or any other fundamentalism which rushes into the vacuum created by fragmentation.

Thus my mentor Lynch urges me, as I seek real forms of unity, “not to move too quickly from the many to the one.” Not to rush into “one place” of seeming security or clarity or rightness, whether that be a set of fixed ideas or some quick conclusion or absolute position. He urges me rather to move more care-fully and attentively through difference and diversity and change as the only realistic way, in any situation, of moving into a “one” or unity of understanding and conviction, of conclusion and position.

As an undergrad, even though I majored in Lit, I didn’t begin to understand the intertwining of “one and many” in good poetry and story, fiction and film. I did feel such unity as I enjoyed the writing, but did not understand how it was accomplished. Only years later, when I understood Lynch’s great book about literature, Christ and Apollo (1960), did I begin to see that good art – whether in poems or plays, fiction or film – always involves the intertwining of “one and many.” Such intertwining is what made the work humanly interesting and artistically significant. It involved the gradually growing relationship (line by line in a poem, scene by scene in script or story) between many words and images, many different characters and plot twists, and the one or unifying intuition which guided both the artist’s work and the reader/viewer’s imagination. Many parts contribute to the making of one significant whole. Yet both writer and reader only get to a realization of that whole by moving step by step, slowly and attentively, through those many parts. A plot summary or statement of “the” theme, even with details from some “CliffsNotes,” simply won’t work. Think of reading Dickens or Dostoevsky, Eliot or Frost, or viewing Romeo and Juliet or Shakespeare in Love, or any really good poem or story or drama. Tolstoy’s War and Peace remains for me the clearest example of a sweepingly diverse narrative (about politics and war, and also about different individuals and families) which achieves a rich unity of vision and sensibility as the many parts contribute, each in its own way, to one artistic whole.

By contrast, what we get in the trite and sensational stuff we often read or see or hear is just more of the same constantly repeated — more and more violence (essentially all the same, just growing in explosive intensity); more good guys being strong-good or sexy-pretty again and again and again (and ditto for the bad guys); more inane lyrics repeating the same banalities and beats ad nauseam.

I recently went to see the latest Star Wars release because several critics claimed it actually involved some significant development in the unending saga. I do suspect the devout were pleased by fresh faces, cute new animals, and new robots. Yet I found it depressingly long and essentially repetitious – just deja-vu over and over again (even though I too liked the new pretty faces). It was just another sequel setting up for the next sequel, great for money making but utterly lousy art. Lots of action and noise and graphics, but nothing of substance beyond the first film I saw more than 30 years ago.

Now let me return from these notes about “one and many” to my forecast for 2018.

We do sense, each in our own way, what seems destined for predominance in the big world during 2018. And we also have a sense of our hopes and fears for the smaller stage of our lives in home and workplace, neighborhood and city.

And so we know, again each in our own way, that there will be many evils and forms of evil in 2018. And many goods and many forms of good.

Let me dwell here on the evils, since we tend to be more aware of them.

We know there will be “big stage” evils. Here’s my list to compare with yours (or to skip if you disagree): There will be increasing inequality and political oppression, abroad and at home. And there will be much intolerance and violence because of racism and gender or religious or ethnic differences. There will be continuing sexual and environmental abuse along with increasing global militarization and wars of many kinds. And all these evils will be overshadowed by the dark fate of climate change and environmental despoliation.

And we also know about the “smaller” evils we will experience daily in our streets and buildings, with both friends and foes. And, as the Bible suggests, we’ll typically be far more aware of the evils we blame on others than of the personal evils we may discuss in therapy or confess in church or at a favorite bar.

Our traditions also remind us that the evils we’ll experience in 2018 – big and small – will come in different forms. Some will be “moral evils,” caused by the sins of individuals or groups. Some will be “natural evils,” consequences of our embodied natures – the evils of hunger and thirst, sickness and diminishment and death. And such natural evils will often be compounded by the moral evil of persons and systems which place power and profit over care for fragile human persons.

Finally, we also know about (and may accept) that some of our traditions of thought find the deepest source of evil to be human failure – sin or powerlust or whatever – while other traditions find that such sin is more deeply rooted in a force like Satan or Kali or another “Dark Lord”.

If you’re still with me, you’ll notice that I have quite deliberately tried to describe the many kinds and varieties of evils we will be affected by in 2018.

I could and should write the same kind of broad description of the many goods we will experience in 2018 – on both the big and small stages of our lives, in many different forms and from different sources. But this writing is already too long. So I urge my reader to pause a bit and begin to imagine the many goods s/he foresees for 2018.

Yet, in order to make my point about “one and many,” I will for the moment stay with the many forms of evil we can easily foresee for 2018. As we suffer and resist and combat various evils this coming year, we need to understand that we are dealing with many different evils. Fortunately, that is what most of us do as we respond to the evils we experience. For we know, from habit and intelligence, that we are dealing with specific and different evils. Illness is not the same as job loss or betrayal or war, and we’ve usually learned to respond differently to each. Yet precisely because there is so much complexity in the evil realities we face, and because of the hard suffering and fear which such evils cause, we often need to blame some “one” thing or some one class or group or SOMETHING we can hate and oppose…and to find some ONE SOLUTUION for all our problems. We want, in other words, to “move quickly from the many to the one.”

To repeat: there will be real evils, real dangers and concerns, which will and should occupy our attention and resistance in 2018. Yet the fundamental problem with such attention and with its accompanying anger and condemnation is that in the face of threats we humans all tend to “rush too quickly from the many to the one.” To see “it all” through one narrow set of lenses – whether of apocalyptic fear or escapist fantasy; whether of ideological purity and absolutized polarization (“they” are to blame; not “us”) or of dread and depression and perhaps despair.

Yet what we most need is the strength to go more patiently and care-fully into 2018. To see that there are many different evils with different causes. I personally find the root of many evils in capitalist economics and pseudo-scientific mechanism. Yet if I’m not simply to rage, I need constantly to remind myself that there are many economic systems, many different capitalisms and different socialisms, many different sciences and technologies and mechanics. And above all many different people, each with their own different virtues and vices.

And, of course, there are simultaneously so many and such different goods.

Most of us, unless we’re paralyzed by rage or the need to run, or seduced by some fantasy of a “final solution,” know this when it comes to action against evil and work for good. We can’t start everyplace, only someplace. We can’t join all movements, only this or that one, in this or that place (big or small) and moment.

I watch with admiration how the “Me 2” movement begins to spread from media and politics to store and factory, and undoubtedly to neighborhoods and schools and families. Just as I see environmental activists working in so many places and at so many levels: from farms and rivers through forests and seashores; in politics and personal habits; in schools and laboratories and churches. I am also immensely grateful for those who seek restorative justice for native populations and refuge for migrant populations.

A friend recently told me of his efforts, both academic and political, to counter the anti-aboriginal “nativism” again on the rise again in Australia. Especially his participation in the effort to work for a multi-national constitution for Australia – something beyond the competing ideologies of liberal democracy (we’re all just one) and of nativism (we whites are the only ones); something which can affirm both the different Aboriginal nations and the predominant European nation as essential parts of the one nation called Australia. This challenge of competing nationalisms is today a major and often violent problem not only in Australia and in the US and Western Europe, but throughout the post-colonial world in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia (think Myanmar), and in post-Soviet Eastern Europe (think the Balkans or Ukraine).

I also note with admiration the many ways that artists – through photography and film, story and stage, poem and song – call attention to all such different people and movements, causes and concerns. And even more broadly how good art of all kinds helps us understand the many different evils we face and the many different goods that sustain us.

Because, again, good artists and serious activists do not move too quickly from the many to the one.  They move, even when motivated by legitimate outrage and condemnation, with the strengths of attention to detail and difference, of real  care and real courage. Not with simplistic rage and the pseudo-courage of some narrowly fixed idea.

May such strengths be with most of us in 2018.

Mater Misericordiae

I went to the courthouse not knowing what to expect.

I just knew it was for sentencing the drunk driver who had killed a good friend, the wife of a former student (I’ll call her “Margaret”) who’d been our friend for many years, and the father of their children (a high school boy and a middle school girl).

During the days after his death and at the lengthy celebration following the funeral mass, I’d heard not one word about the driver who’d killed my friend. Not one word. Clearly it was a decision by the families (hers and his) to focus on mourning their loss and celebrating the life of a very good man. Nor had I heard anything about the perpetrator in the many months since.

When I joined the crowd of twenty-some family and friends outside the courtroom, that’s when I first learned something about the man to be sentenced — a late-twenties unmarried worker with one prior DUI, clearly an alcoholic (something widely understood these days as a disease), and an Anglo (something I need to add since our minds easily jump to ethnic stereotypes). And there I also first learned the far more important fact that Margaret did not want him sentenced to prison.

To my surprise, the prosecuting attorney came out to us to explain what might happen and ask if there were others, besides Margaret, who would like to speak before sentence was imposed. Several did.

He told us that he had agreed to Margaret’s wishes but that the judge (earlier that morning) had expressed opposition to the prosecutor’s recommendations – worked out with Margaret, I assume, over a long period of discussion and discernment. He would still recommend a six year prison sentence to be suspended, a very strict and carefully monitored four-year probation (with any infraction leading immediately to the full prison sentence), and an immediate 90-days in jail with work-release for the man to continue his job. But he again reminded us that the judge might not accept that recommendation.

As it turned out, the judge did accept it.

That’s the background, but not the reason I write. It is, rather, my experience during the late afternoon hour in the courtroom that leads me to write. And not just my experience, but “ours” – Margaret’s family and friends, the man’s family and friends, and (I believe this) most of the “hardened” courtroom staff, from the judge himself to the bailiff. As one of Margaret’s friends wrote in an email the next day, that late afternoon hour was an experience of “Redemption. Humbling. Love. Grace. God. And to them, I would add Restoration.”

As a young woman, Margaret had tested the idea of becoming a Franciscan Sister. She became, instead, a school teacher whose career has been spent in middle and high schools serving minorities, immigrants, and the poor, an equally Franciscan vocation. Yet I said to her after we left the courtroom that she had never been more “Franciscan” than at that hour.

In the court, where all knew that it was her decision not to seek prison punishment, she spoke with eloquent words and occasional sobs about her experience seeing her husband dead in the street, and about the darkness in the months since and still. She spoke of her husband, their life together, and all the good he had done for their family and for the larger community. About their family joy in camping and skiing. About his skills in home renovation, his work as an electrical engineer, his service to his neighborhood and the larger community, and to a non-profit dedicated to helping needy women and children in Asia.

Finally she urged the man being sentenced to use this opportunity not only to clean up his life, but to do more – to do something better for the larger community and world as a small measure of making up for what he had taken from the world.

I have entitled this writing “Mater Misericordiae.” It’s the second phrase from a medieval Latin chant which we sang in the seminary as a final prayer before retiring at night. Some readers may know the translated English prayer I remember from  my youth: “Hail Holy Queen, Mother of Mercy….” I urge readers both to listen to the beautiful chant and to read the prayer’s pious words .

At one point in my life I resisted some of that piety about us being “exiled children of Eve” in this “vale of tears.” I wanted to affirm the goodness of the world that God has created and the beautiful Kingdom that Jesus preached. Yet the older I become — the more violence and injustice I see, the more friends and relatives who die, at times so diminished by disease – the more I recognize that our world is both terribly good – a goodness lived by Margaret and her husband and family – and also a place of real exile and tears.

In the chant and prayer, the “mother of mercy” is, of course, Mary the mother of Jesus.  She is now the Queen of Heaven who embodies (in her life and through her Son) God’s tender if at times also harsh mercy for our world.

Yet I also intend that title here for Margaret (though I suspect she will reject it). And for all the mothers (and fathers, sisters and brothers) who continue to bring the reality of mercy – of Mercy – into this world. In great acts of hope and loving kindness like the one we experienced in that courtroom. And in ordinary, everyday acts – in classrooms as well as courtrooms, at our tables and on our streets, in churches and workplaces.

The song ends with a plaintive cry to Mary – “O clemens, O pia, O dulchis virgo Maria” (Oh merciful, oh holy, oh sweet Virgin Mary). We don’t often, I suspect, think of the sweet savor of God’s grace, though the rightly famous song does say “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound.” And we may well think more of such sweetness were we more in touch with God’s feminine and maternal reality – manifest for Catholics and Orthodox above all through Mary.

Mercy is indeed sweet. So I pray that this young man may be led by that taste to a better life. And I thank Margaret for enabling us to taste again, in dark times, that sweet Mercy.

A Brief Note About Modesty

As a footnote to my last post about the “Me Too” movement (see below), I want to say something about modesty.

Modesty, according to the dictionary, is about measure and moderation. It is a virtue for all of us, men and women equally. These days it mostly refers both to dress and behavior, and typically refers to women’s dress and behavior.

I will leave discussion of women’s modesty to women, perhaps especially to mothers and daughters. I will add only one note from my male perspective. I have come to suspect that many women are somewhat naïve about the effect of their fashions on men. Other women, of course, are quite conscious about that effect and quite deliberate in dressing and acting to manipulate it.

As to modesty for men, I also urge women to speak out. Men mostly are aware of immodesty in their behavior, but need constant reminders. Hopefully this might be one of the ripple effects of the “Me Too” movement. Regarding men’s clothing, I had not thought much about modesty until one day on campus, after I’d complained about the parade of tight fitting shirts and low-cut blouses on female students, a young woman caught me up with comments about similar clothing on many young men.

Yet my primary point in this writing is to recall the idea of “modesty of the eyes.”  It’s a term I first heard during seminary training so many years ago – Catholic seminary training for young men committed to lives of celibacy. The term was new, but not the idea. Anyone, perhaps men especially but also women, who wishes to have a sane sexual life needs to be measured and moderate, even carefully cautious in what they look at, the sights and images that catch and hold their eyes.

If you continue to look with lust (whether at a human body or a bottle of whiskey) you’re already in trouble.

As a life-long admirer of women’s beauty, I would only add that immodest dress is almost always a distraction from real beauty — a fashion-mandated and often desperate call for attention.

That’s it. Nothing new; all obvious. Just my brief contribution to the recovery of an ancient but perennial virtue. Modesty in dress and behavior is not a particularly Christian or religious thing. Just a form of sanity and beauty, measure and moderation.

It remains true, of course, that a there is always also a moderate need for occasionally immoderate excess.

“Me Too” and the Image Industries

Our news media, thankfully, continue to focus on revelations of sexual abuse (mainly of women) by predators with power (mostly men).  I admire the victims and the vulnerable who keep coming forward in the “Me Too” movement and I hope those who see this as a watershed moment in the struggle against abuse and for women’s dignity are right.  Yet in current commentary, I’ve found little discussion about the role of our “image industries” in the history of recent sexual abuse.

What follows are just a few comments about those industries, mostly things we already know but need to emphasize.   I ask readers to add their reflections below as well as links to related and perhaps more substantial discussion.

The first obvious thing – at least obvious to those of my generation – is the continually increasing sexualization of our media at least since the 1950s.  And by “our media” I mean not only cinema and TV, but advertising and fashion, magazine and news photography, and now the internet.  And by sexualization I mean primarily the sexualization of women’s bodies in both pose and action.  (Who knew that TV’s growing number of women detectives would need not just pretty faces but deep revealing cleavages in order to do their increasingly violent deeds!)

I hope I’m not naïve about the long history of both pornography and the sexual depiction of female beauty.  I remember a male guide in the ruins of Pompei who asked only the men in the group to enter one room decorated with remnants of ancient Roman pornography.  It was the early 1960s when his pseudo-modesty for the women was already becoming laughable.

Yet I also remember, and it is more to my point, a recent visit to Viet Nam with an American Catholic Sister who had grown up near Saigon.  What struck both of us was the omnipresent westernization of the scantily and sexily clad Vietnamese models on billboards and in shop windows.  (It is an ironic victory for the West that even communist economies now make immense profits from media sexualization.  What the military could not do, the market quickly accomplished.)

It’s not surprising that the upsurge of “me too” accusations began primarily in our media – in news (Fox) and entertainment (from Cosby to Weinstein to the latest headline) – and has spread thence to politics and beyond.

As I say, all this is obvious, and perhaps not even much noticed by younger folks raised entirely within this pervasive media regime.  (Here, again, I would invite comment and links about the impact of this sexualization on succeeding “generations” of young adults, adolescents, and children.)

As an aside: while I much admire and support the media women who initiated the “Me Too” movement, I nonetheless wonder about their active participation in this broader sexualization – by the roles they play, the fashions they sport, the notoriety and popularity (and wealth) they have attained.  I am NOT blaming the victim, but I am asking for women’s reflections about women’s participation in the “sexualization” of our media.

Nor I hope am I being a prude – one of the capital sins of contemporary culture.  Sexual liberation or the sexual revolution has not been some one simple thing.  Many of us (myself included) have benefitted immensely from greater cultural and religious acceptance of the good and beauty of human sexuality, even as most of us (myself included) have had more than a few stumbles and sins along the way to real liberation.

My concern about the sexualization of our media (with its strangely simultaneous trivialization of sex and spread of sexual abuse) is not a call for moral crusades to clean up our media – though such crusades are probably one inevitable consequence of our (hopefully) watershed moment, and may well prove helpful in a variety of ways.  Rather it is above all a call for serious public discussion, spurred by the reports of abuse, to diagnose the deeper imaginative and economic diseases of our media regime.

Clearly the prime movers of the sexualization process have been the commercial masters of our media.  Sex sells, and profits are huge.  Weinstein’s fat ugly face provides (at least for me) an apt image for the economic disease ravaging our media.  (I expect to see many such faces in any update of Dante’s Inferno.)

Yet I am here more concerned with the even deeper imaginative diseases metastasizing through our media.  Which brings me to my second obvious point – that the sexualization of media is but one aspect of the broader and in the end far more destructive process of sensationalizing.  One could also speak of the pervasive “fantasizing” and “infantilizing” of media images and “creative” imaginations.

If sex sells, excitement and intensity and shock are what make it sell.  And the pervasive emphasis on excitement and intensity in all our media — enhanced by technical “improvements” for faster pace, mind-blowing visuals, and spirit-deadening sound – is needed to “re-capture” the diminishing attention and sensibility of audiences, viewers, even readers.  (Years ago, reggae artist Jimmy Cliff lamented: “Poor slave, they took the shackles from your body; poor slave, they put the shackles on your mind.”) The media came to “shock and awe” long before the military, even as militarization has always depended on media fantasy to maintain popular support.

My mentor William Lynch, SJ, analyzed the imaginative diseases of our media in his still important 1959 book The Image Industries.  The book was in part a response to the Catholic Church’s “Legion of Decency” campaign which as early as 1933 sought to counter the sexualization of our media.  That campaign, as I experienced it, attained an apogee of sorts in the 1950s, but Lynch was concerned that, however well-intentioned, it distracted from the larger problem in image industries.  The commercial masters could (and on occasion did) easily “clean up” this or that objectionable scene while leaving untouched the remaining 90 minutes of infantilizing junk that was then becoming standard (and increasingly profitable) fare for the dream factory.  Lynch called for the collaborative work of artists and critics, schools and churches, in the development of a critical public sensibility which would demand better.  A call still much needed.

Many good critical essays and books have been written over the years about the sensationalizing of our media and the infantilizing of our imaginations.  Many good films and TV productions have themselves sought to counter the spread of these diseases.  There have been, to note but one especially relevant example, many good films and programs about romance and sexual experience, some quite “explicit,” yet artistically and humanly so.  And the same for films about war and violence, crime and punishment.  Indeed many good films and programs have deliberately mocked the sensationalizing and infantilizing process, helping us to laugh at our own seductions and hoot the phony and fantastic from the stage of our spirits.

Yet it’s been mostly been band-aids.  Nothing yet has significantly impeded the manic metastasizing of our media diseases, much less led to real healing and transformation.

Enough.  I am simply writing a reminder about what we all know, but has so far gotten too little attention in “Me Too” news and commentary.

Perhaps this “Me Too” moment might provide occasion for real change in our image industries.  I hope, but am not hopeful.  Let me know (below) what you think.

A Death in the Family and the Ways We Mourn

 I recently wrote about the death of a longtime friend. I’m writing now, on All Saints Day, because of the death of a young relative who was, as they say, “spiritual but not religious.” Having been asked by the family to speak at the memorial service, I was led to think about how our ways of mourning are changing to be inclusive of the growing diversity of belief in our families and communities. It’s something like what’s happening in our rituals for marriage. I am concerned – as are others – about what we’ve gained and what we’ve lost, and perhaps need to develop, in the language and rituals which might help all of us in times of great loss. So below, as but one example of the effort to find appropriate words, I share (with his family’s permission) words I spoke for the memorial service for Jake – a young husband and father who died after a year-long battle with cancer. It may help to note that the service was held not in a church, but in the outdoors. At the end I’ll ask you to comment about the rituals and language which have helped you, or which you might like to hear and see.

Clearly all of us here, each in different ways, experience the pain of terrible loss at Jake’s passing, probably shock and numbness, perhaps doubt and confusion and even anger. About such pain I say what we know – that it is not only inevitable, but necessary, even right, for it is expresses our love for Jake.

So yes, today we shed tears. We’ll also tell stories and smile, even laugh, as we move around, greeting and touching and hugging in a communal dance far deeper than words.

It may be enough simply to say that this is how we both mourn and begin to heal.

But I want to suggest that our sorrow is, in a very human way, mingled with, grounded on a sense of affirmation, even deep joy.

Mostly because we affirm the goodness of Jake’s life as husband and father, brother and son, friend and companion.

But also because many of us believe, in our different ways, that Jake now lives in the company of his Granny, his Aunt Mary and Uncle Ed, and his brother Peter. It’s why we speak of death as “passing” or “passing on.”

Yet there’s also a more immediate and for most of us more important reason for the affirmation we experience within our pain.

Let me try to explain.

Many know the story of Prince Siddhartha who attained Nirvanna while walking among us. For Buddhists, Nirvanna is not an afterlife, but complete immersion here and now in the river of compassion that flows through everything. It flows most obviously through the lives of saints like the Buddha, but also through many so-called “ordinary” people. And even the rest of us have times when we are held by the flow of that river. The fundamental affirmation and deep joy we may feel today are perhaps such a momentary and also communal immersion in that river. It does not take away pain, but cleanses it with our shared compassion.

Some of you may also know about the Lakota holy man Black Elk. He had survived Wounded Knee and knew the evil that murdered his people. Yet as a boy Black Elk had a vision of Great Power for his people. He saw them and all of us living in harmony with the four directions or powers coming from North and South, East and West. They are the daily power of sunrise freshness and noon warmth, of evening quiet and night sleep. They are the annual powers of spring rebirth and summer growth, fall’s harvest and winter’s blanket of snow. They are also the great powers we experience in childhood energy and maturity’s strength, in elder slowing and in the final passage of death (even when it comes far too soon). These are real powers, here in this world. We know them more in our bodies than in our minds. Black Elk says they are gifts from the Grandfathers. For most of us they are spirit-strengths given by our Mother Earth.

I find much in Black Elk’s teachings that resonate with the teachings of Rabbi Jesus.* Both men believed in an afterlife, but each affirmed that the Spirit’s power is with us “on earth as it is in heaven.”

The pain of Jake’s death is, I say again, rooted in his goodness, his journey to harmony with the Four Directions. And we travel still with him, on streets and slopes and across continents and cultures. We work with him still for a justice rooted in such harmony.

Now a final way to explain this comingling of sorrow and joy: The monk Thomas Merton (a quite Buddhist Christian) tells us about the Great Dance:

“No despair of ours [he says] can alter the joy of the cosmic dance which is always there. We are in the midst of it, and it is in the midst of us, for it beats in our very blood whether we want it or not…. We are [he concludes] invited to forget ourselves on purpose…and join that dance.”

The rhythms of that Great Dance move through us now as greet and embrace, cry and laugh. Jake calls us to join him in that Dance, not only today but tomorrow and through all our tomorrows.

I end by repeating my request that you might respond below, not to my remarks for Jake, but to the general issue about how we are finding words and rituals for death.

*In mid-life, Black Elk became a Catholic lay minister while retaining his Lakota beliefs and practices. He has been nominated for canonization by the Catholic Church in North Dakota.

The Gun as Anti-Sacrament

I first posted this essay in 2013 on the Denver Post’s religion blogsite “Hark.”  I post it again (with minor corrections and additions) since we are again in a seemingly fruitless discussion about gun control.  Please make replies below (on this site) and feel free to share with others if you find it helpful.  John

First, a short version:

In trying to understand the passionate outrage of some folks at efforts to pass gun-control legislation, I have come to think of “the gun” as an “anti-sacrament” – not so much the actual gun one might possess or want to buy, but the symbolic gun that pervades thinking and provokes passions.  (Yet we should not underestimate the significance of holding the actual weapon, of its sense of weight and power for the owner and user.) For Christians, sacraments are ritual actions involving physical things like water, bread and wine – actions which evoke a sense of safety and salvation because they embody a narrative about what really hurts us (evil and sin) and what really heals (God’s love, grace, and assurance). Their ritualized repetition, in other words, enacts a story about what we should fear and resist, and also about what we most need for help and hope. In the contemporary gun debate, it often seems that those resisting any infringement on gun rights are held captive by a different story about fear and hope – fear of governments and other threatening powers, of criminals and intruders and strangers, of the dangerous and unexpected; and hope in self-reliance and self-defense, in “our way of life” and the possession of guns. In this latter narrative, perhaps especially by ritualized repetition at rallies and protests, the gun becomes a kind of sacrament – a symbolic or sacred object that embodies a pervasive sense of what threatens and what protects and saves. I call it an “anti-sacrament” because its narrative distorts realistic fears and hopes to such a degree that it produces an illusory but absolute sense of both evil and salvation – and thereby contributes to even more real evil and much less actual safety.

Now a longer, more nuanced version:

I am writing this essay in an effort to understand the passions of many gun-rights folks in this country – passions I find quite terrifying.

I write as someone who has never owned a gun, but once had a typical American boy’s fascination with them. (I allowed my son to indulge that fascination at age 13 with a pellet gun – something he himself chose never to touch again after he killed a chipmunk with a lucky shot.) Thus I write from ignorance about the hunting culture which grew from the necessity of food to become today an ecological necessity. I admit as well to some ignorance about our cultures of security – the world of police and military and others recruited to “serve and protect.” I have no insider understanding of these cultures. I accept their necessity, yet view them with wariness and studied skepticism.

I write as someone who thinks that most proposed gun control legislation simply makes common sense, that the 2nd Amendment’s meaning has been distorted beyond recognition by its supposed defenders, and that the most powerful opposition to gun control comes from those who profit most – manufacturers and dealers and the propaganda they hire.

I have little interest in these contemporary gun-runners other than to expose the deceit of their proclamation of principle which really serves to mask their far more fundamental pursuit of profit. Yet I do want to try to understand the ordinary folks – a term I intend here as a title of respect – those who are whipped into fury by the NRA and other propagandists. I want to understand their fear and resentment, as well as their anger and righteousness.

My title’s description of the gun as an “anti-sacrament” tries to suggest both the roots of such fear and the dangers of such anger.

The idea of a “sacrament” is, of course, a traditional Christian one, especially favored by Roman Catholics and Orthodox, but also affirmed by Protestants, and found as well in different ways in most other religions. At root it expresses the belief that certain rituals (like baptism and communion) are sacred ways whereby we are opened to God’s healing presence. More specifically, it is the belief that life-sustaining material things like water and wine, bread and bodily touch, can become vehicles for such opening and healing. In traditional language, sacraments are earthen vessels that mediate God’s grace, assurance and salvation.

By extension, sacraments are found widely in human experience – in special places (like holy mountains or sacred springs) or in special moments when the ordinary (like a glass of wine, a sunset, or a song) becomes extraordinary. Writers of good fiction of have helped us imagine such extensions of the sacred into everyday experience. Admirers of Andre Dubus, for instance, know not only his stunning reflection on the sacramental peanut butter sandwich infused with parental love, but his even more remarkable ability to evoke sacred presence (without naming it as such) in his stories about ordinary and mundane events. The same, of course, can be said about many other good writers. It can also be said about much good cinema and television, where writers and actors, cinematographers and directors, at times conspire to evoke the sacred in secular settings and stories.

Yet it is also painfully evident to most of us that contemporary cinema and television, as well as much fiction, is filled with repeated and ritualized presentation of what I am calling “anti-sacraments.” For if sacraments are objects and actions that evoke real healing and protection, anti-sacraments are objects and actions which, while pretending to protect and heal, actually achieve the opposite. They mislead our fears, misdirect our hopes, and actually increase our hurt and insecurity.

What, then, does understanding the gun as an anti-sacrament tell us about the passions manifest in the present gun-control debate?

It tells us that people have important fears about real dangers – the danger of crime and violence; the danger of strangers in our midst; the danger of political and economic systems over which we have little control; the danger of change happening too fast and also beyond control. It tells us that people rightly resent forces that intrude with great power, yet with too little care. It tells us, most fundamentally, that we fear hurt and death.

Yet the idea of “gun as anti-sacrament” also reminds us that legitimate fears and resentments too often grow beyond all relation to reality. Fear alone can do this, but the disproportionate and illusory effect happens mostly when our imaginations are manipulated – by sensational news and propaganda, by deliberately distorted and exaggerated stories and cinema and television.

And the idea of “gun as anti-sacrament” should remind us that thus-distorted imaginations and fears have real and very dangerous effects, in individual lives and in the shared life of society. They are anti-life, not protective of life. They drive us into defensive postures that cut off healing contact with others, and with the real. They drive us to anger and violence both in imagination and, too often, in reality. They thus pollute our lives and our politics.

Of course, in saying these things, I may be indulging my own distortion and exaggeration. Yet I actually fear that, if anything, I err on the side of understatement. For the narrative embodied in the gun as anti-sacrament is today pervasive in our culture and our politics. It has, for too many hearts and minds, replaced not only the once honored (even if only rhetorically) religious narrative about evil and safety, but also the kind of common sense reasonableness we used to count on finding among ordinary folk – in our towns and neighborhoods, among parents and elders.

And, to repeat, this replacement and pollution of once sane and shared stories has not happened by fate or accident. It has happened because of the power of money – that most fundamental anti-sacrament we are forced to live with these days.

Of course we need money for all sorts of exchanges, just as some need guns for various legitimate purposes (from hunting to policing).  Yet like guns, money so easily becomes “sacramental,” part of a narrative about security and power, and “anti-sacramental” when that narrative nurtures illusory fears and hopes.  The result, in the case of guns and even more in the case of money, is a culture and society dominated by illusion and violence.

Which, I submit and urge, is very much where we are today in this country and around the world.




Closed Enclaves and Open Circles

I have written previously about ways we might work to heal the deep divisions in our society, our churches and religions, and our world. This blog is a further reflection on such healing.


I recently spent several days in the Colorado Rockies with a group of friends from our early days in the Marianists (a Catholic religious order of brothers and priests) It was a continuation of a similar meeting last summer in Burlington, VT. I wrote about our brotherhood earlier this summer after the unexpected death of our Burlington host who was to join us again this time.


Our days together were a wonderful mixture of serious discussion, good food and drink, and much relaxation and laughter. The broad focus of meandering discussion was the current state of our country, our church (Catholicism), and our world…and the great need for various forms of leadership and support to bring healing to ourselves and our world. What follows grows from that discussion.


Mental and spiritual health, whether for each of us or for our society and its institutions, can be described concretely as “a good taste of self and a good taste of the world” (William Lynch, SJ). It is far deeper than ideas and beliefs, and that depth is given with the crucial word “taste.” Healing our inner wounds and outer divisions involves development in such good tastes. And they are correllative and inseparable. An individual or a group cannot have a truly good taste of itself without a corresponding good taste of the world. Which, of course, is why walled off lives do not bring a good taste, whatever their luxury or ideology. Nor can we taste the goodness of the world (of daily life and of the larger world of God’s creation and human history) without a simultaneously good taste of our selves.


Yet the perennial human tendency in the face of pain and loss, crisis and conflict, is to withdraw in search of security. To withdraw into our personal or familial “inner sanctum.” To withdraw into walled compounds or encircled wagons. To make our family or church, our city or country, safe and secure by drawing and defending borders from the dangerous other.  And we must realize (and even be sympathetic with) how terribly seductive such walled enclosures are for all of us, given our limitations and weaknesses.


Such withdrawal is probably most evident these days in the immigration fears and walls growing throughout our world: in the appeal of Trump’s promised wall; in the complex pattern of apartheid enforced by Israel; in various European responses to refugees and immigrants (sadly typified by the Brexit vote); in Putin’s steady drive to redraw and strengthen Russia’s boundaries; in North Korea…in Syria…


But it is also evident much more locally. In the continuing class and racial segregation of neighborhoods throughout the US; in the growing separation of churches even within the same denominations; in our incresaingly “walled off” schools, clubs, golf courses…. And it is a response characteristic of so many of our personal lives, most evident in various forms of mental illness, but pervasive in the mental and spiritual illnesses from which (I do not hesitate to say) every one of us suffers.


The popular spiritual writer Henri Nouwen wrote a wonderful and still available book called Reaching Out (1986). That title and his writing argues that mental and spiritual health demands a serious practice of “reaching out” to our better selves, to others, and to God. My mentor Lynch wrote a more complex book, Images of Hope (1965), which argues that real hope (not escapist fantasies) requires real help – real relationships, whether with another (a friend, a counsellor, a mentor) or with the world. It requires that we continually resist the temptation to withdraw into various forms of walled enclosures and live into those inclusive forms of human community which “reach out” to the other, the world, and to God (or the Good or whatever we believe to be the ultimate ground of trust).


If such reflections on the two possible directions we face (which Lynch says we always face throughout our lives) make sense, then the crucial question becomes how do we resist the withdrawal/flight temptation and grow into the inclusive human city? Of course, most of us are typically moving in both directions at the same time – withdrawing and opening, fearing and trusting – and the life-long challenge is over time to shift our habits and tendencies from withdrawal to openness. Or better put, to acknowledge that at times withdrawal is necessary, but to grow into an openness that makes even such withdrawal a resource for opening to the world.


During that recent “retreat” with my brothers in the mountains a recurring theme was that we all need, in the many sectors of our lives, forms of leadership which challenge us to such reaching out. And we all (as leaders in our different ways and forms) need circles of support and discernment which will nourish such reaching out.


Our retreat, our ongoing communications, our larger brotherhood – these are for me that kind of circle. And (Deo gratias) most of us are similarly blessed with a variety of such circles or communities. In our families, our networks of friends and colleagues, our congregations and clubs and workplaces (whatever their problems), probably even on our golf courses.


In Habits of the Heart (1985), their now classic study of “individualiism and commitment in American life,” sociologist Robert Bellah and his colleagues called for strengthening such circles. They described them as “communities of memory” – based on a shared practices and ideas about social good – and contrasted them with a growing pattern of “lifestyle enclaves” designed to help us close off from the rest, from the mess.


Several of my brothers have had very successful careers in corporate personnel work and management training. Thus our focus on leadership for the health of businesses and the broader society. One especially recommended a trending book on leadership, Otto Scharmer’s Theory U: Leading from the Future as It Emerges (2007), which makes a similarly fundamental distinction between what I have been calling walled enclaves and open circles. Another drew on Buddhist practice of meditative awareness for becoming present to self and other by ditching the fear-filled distractions of the “news.” And yes, he brought another book into our conversation: Jack Kornfield’s The Wise Heart (2008). Finally, we discussed the sharp contrast between two visions of our evolutionary future: one articulated in the currently provocative bestseller by Israeli historian Uval Harari, Homo Deus (2017), the other by ecotheologian Thomas Berry in books like his The Great Work: Our Way Into the Future (1999). Harari’s (for me dismal) argument is that human consciousness will “develop” into an algorithmic future where we evolve into intelligent machines, where Berry find’s God’s spirit leading us into wider and deeper forms of relationship with nature and humanity.


OK, if you are still reading, you can see that my brothers read widely.  All were and remain teachers in various ways, and together we were what another brother (who couldn’t attend) called “a bunch of nerds.” I make no apologies. But neither is the crucial point here primaily a matter of reading and ideas.


All these references to books is just my shorthand way of suggesting that, despite all that is “breaking bad”  in our country and world, there are many thoughtful folks, in many different fields, calling attention to all that is “going good”  in theory but especially in actual practice – in the many circles of support which lead us to further engagement with the other, and thus to both a good taste of self and world.


We know this. You know this. Again, from your experiences of family and neighborhoods, associations and workplaces, clubs and cities. Sure, we typically are more aware of the inadequacies of such circles, or often try to turn them into closed enclaves of “just us.” We too have our gangs, and often depend on them. Yet our lives would be unlivable if even our gangs were not to some degree communities of support and outreach.


May even our greatest fears and suffering lead us, quickly or over time, into the embrace of those circles which will then lead us back into a world of good.






Good Books That Help Us See

The books I’m recommending here have been written by friends and former colleagues, one a novelist and professor of writing, the other a theologian and iconographer.  Both writers are concerned, each in his way, with how we see and with helping us see things more really: in one case seeing the divine or the sacred, in the other the secular realities of a contemporary human journey. 

For David Hicks’ new novel, White Plains (Conundrum Press, 2017), is realistically and wonderfully human in its imagining of that journey, perhaps especially by its comic dethroning of various fantasies of some perfect or “magical” journey.  While Fr. Les Bundy’s two short books – Interface: Catholic/Orthodox Convergence and Interchange: Buddhist Iconography: A Christian reflection (both Outskirts Press, 2016) – direct our sight, so to speak, in a more transcendent direction, or perhaps better said, direct our seeing “through” sacred art and icons.  They are comparative studies of the role of sacred art in Russian Orthodoxy, in New Mexican Santos devotions, and in Buddhism.  Interchange by itself is a very good short introduction both to the idea and purpose of religious art and to Buddhism, with special emphasis on its varied art forms.

Of course, our ability to see is both quite natural yet also immensely complex and difficult.  No surprise that a blind man is often the “seer” in classical literature or that the fool is often Shakespeare’s truth-teller.   Part of our difficulty is simply learning to pay attention.  We accept that attention requires training and discipline for the scientist, yet too often assume that attentive seeing just comes naturally for human things.  And some, of course, also assume that seeing of any sort is simply impossible with things sacred or divine.

Yet in things both human and divine the pervasive problem is that we are frequently “distracted from distraction by distraction.”  And one major cause for such distraction is the “body of images” constitutive of our culture – from media and advertising images, to deeper and more pervasive images of human life and of sacred things. For while we are blessed with many good image makers in our arts and media, we seem these days to be inundated with superficial and stereotypical images, or so my mentor Lynch argued in his book The Image Industries.

Les Bundy is an Orthodox priest and an artist, attracted early in his career as an artist to Zen and later to iconography.  He is also a historian of Christian art who has travelled much in Europe studying church art and architecture.  And he remains a serious student of Buddhism.  His books are brief comparative explorations of the role of icons and sacred art with accompanying photographic plates.

On first look, the quality of the reproductions in his books may disappoint since they’re not the glossy reprinting we’ve come to expect.  Yet the more ordinary photo reproduction is probably quite deliberate.  For Bundy himself raises a significant concern about contemporary mass reproduction of icons and other forms of religious art.  He correctly worries that when a sacred artifact is removed from its proper setting in worship and prayer we risk a loss of significance and seriousness, even the possibility that it becomes little more than a trinket.

Of course we Jews and Christians and Muslims (and also we Buddhists and Hindus) know (or most of us think) that it is not possible to see God or to depict the sacred in its fullness. Indeed for Jews and Muslims and some Christians the command not to make images of God has at times led to the deliberate destruction of all images.   Christians have greater difficulty with this prohibition since we believe in the Incarnation, that God became human and visible in the life of Jesus.  Thus from quite early in Christian history both symbolic and pictoral art has been used in ceremonial places.  Yet our different Christian traditions (Catholic, Orthodox, Reformed) have nonetheless struggled over time with the religious appropriateness of icons and statues, stained glass and sacred vessels. The plain white “congregational” church in this country, and the bare-ruined choirs of the great cathedrals of Reformation Europe attest to the kind of protest against the use of art which one finds in almost all great religious traditions.  Yet the magnificent cathedrals of Catholic and Orthodox countries (and even the small churches),  along with rows of gold Buddhas and the wildly elaborate (and often erotic) statuary of even the smallest Hindu village shrine, all testify to the persistence of sacred art in so many religious traditions.

It is no surprise that Bundy, as Orthodox iconographer and art historian, argues for the importance of religious art even in (and perhaps especially for) these secular times. And as a vehicle for dialogue between religions. Yet even more important is his insistence on the sacred quality and setting of the art – as part of prayer and especially communal worship.  For the Orthodox iconographer, the act of painting should itself be a form of prayer, not just an exercise of skill and technique – which, of course, renders machine reproduction problematic.  Yet widespread production and purchasing of religious art can be and often is a healthy response to our need for a sense of sacred presence in the home, or taxicab, or even on one’s own body.  That certainly was the case with the crucifixes and rosaries of my youth, and remains so for me today with the icons (one a gift from Fr. Bundy) on the wall above my desk.  As it still is for so many religious folk, perhaps especially among the pious young – at times even with carefully located tattoos.

Yet if there is complexity and conroversy about religious or sacred seeing, I believe we today have an even greater problem with seeing the realities of human life.  Nourishing an adequate “seeing” of our humanity has, of course, been one of the primary educational tasks of both the family and civic culture.  It has also, of course, been the primary goal of art, great or small, visual or literary.  From Michelangelo’s David to Shakespeare’s Lear, from nursery rhymes to family photos.  Yet as already noted our mass media (mass reproduction once again) seems to have made real seeing more difficult, so pervasive in both personal and public life are the one-dimensional, slick, simplistic, banal, stereotyped images produced not only for advertising and news, but also by the supposedly more creative or literary arts of fiction, drama, and cinema.

I know that I am touching here on important debates about the nature of our media and their effects on human sensibility.   Yet I don’t hesitate to say again that the dominant images of human life in our arts and communications are both superficial and silly as well as damaging and dangerous.

  • So we need to alert each other (as, thankfully, we often do) when there is a film or photo, a novel or poem, which does deliver “the real thing” by its imaging of adventure and struggle, of confusion and order, of romance and sexuality, even of failure and tragedy and evil.  For real seeing depends on a constantly renewed treasury of good images and stories – artistically and humanly good, even and perhaps especially  when depicting tragedy and real evil.

Measured by this crucial standard, David Hicks’ White Plains delivers “the real thing” in richly imagined detail.

In one way the novel is a fairly straightforward narrative in the tradition of the West’s first great novel, Cervantes’ Don Quixote – so long as we remember that the lowly Sancho is as much its hero as the dreamy Don, indeed that together their paired personalities embody the deep passions of “everyman” or woman — our lofty hopes rooted in a deep need for the earthy and ordinary.  (I just loved Hick’s descriptions of the various low-end restaurants his budget-minded hero depended on during grad school years in New York.  And his tenderly realistic use of baseball, especially in the “Diamond Dash” chapter, to evoke the complex love between father and son.)

Hicks imagines the journey of his everyman (“Flynn”) from youth to maturity through a series of connected short stories or vignettes depicting different “stages on life’s way” – stages of his professional development (as as an aspiring academic) and of his search for love and family.  The story, then, is in some ways quite traditional.  Yet the substance is concretely contemporary and the style interestingly modern or even experimental.  For the connected but disparate (and not strictly sequential) vignettes, while often narrated by the “hero,” are also told in the voices and from the perspective of other fully imagined characters.  The artistic result is not some kind of fragmented “modernism,” but a fuller imagining and seeing than might have been achieved with a more straightforward narrative style.

The result is both concrete and universal – the richly imagined story of just one believably good man which nonetheless enables us to better understand the story of “everyman.”  Said differently, the book’s concrete and contemporary (and often comic) realism subverts stereotypes and thus enables us to see our own humanity more fully.

And, lest I fail to say it explicitly, White Plains is a damn good read – enjoyable, at times laugh-out-loud funny, often heartbreaking, at times adventurous…and throughout appropriately uplifting because it remains so down to earth.

So I recommend these good books by my friends.  For each in its way nourishes our ability to see more clearly and fully.

Yet I risk added length in order to suggest one further complexity about sacred and secular seeing.

While it’s probably appropriate to say, as I have, that Bundy’s and Hicks’ books move seeing in different (sacred or secular), both authors draw (implicitly at least) from a tradition of Western humanism which 1) knows that women and men (in their earthy or secular reality) are “made in the image of God” and 2) also knows the correlative truth that we can see or think about God only in earthy and human terms (as eagle or lion, rock or fortress, Mother or Father, lover or friend, king or servant…).

Just maybe, then, the story of Hicks’ hero  helps us understand the sacred as well as the secular, even as Bundy’s sacred art helps us to understand the depth and meaning of our humanity.

I seem to remember a prayer that asks “God help us to see.”  Perhaps that is a good way to conclude.

The Death of a Very Close Friend

I originally wrote this eulogy for those who knew my friend. I post it here since it is not only about my friend’s life, but about a way of life, and about the Tree of Life. It is also about death, about karma and the communion of saints, about Buddhism and Christianity, about smiling and singing. All my writing is personal since I know no other way of thinking. Yet this is more personal than most. So I ask anyone who chooses to read on to permit my weave of reminiscence with broader reflection, as well as the resultant length.

My very good friend Joe Kroger died on July 18 from complications following heart surgery. He was 76 and only a month retired from 45 years as Professor of Religious Studies at St. Michael’s College in Burlington VT.

I first met Joe in August 1959 when we joined a group of “novices” at a monastic solitude in upstate New York, just a year-long induction to a way of life we’d all been attracted to. It was the way of a group or “order” of Catholic Brothers (mostly monks, some priests) called the “Society of Mary” or “Marianists.”

Most of us were just out of high-schools run by those Brothers, graduates of what today might be called “elite” prep schools for boys, but back then were simply the next step of aspiration in the Catholic world of places like Joe’s Cincinnati and my New York.

Filled with the energy of youth and the optimism of that period, yet also a bit frightened and challenged, we made friends quickly and often very deeply – friendships which in many cases have lasted now almost 60 years. So let me first say something about the “common bond” among those men, for it was the context of my long friendship with Joe.

The years have, of course, taken their toll. Joe’s death is a memento mori, a reminder that we don’t need to ask for whom the bell tolls. Yet far more important than their toll has been the joy and achievement and love experienced through those years, even amidst (often because of) the serious challenges each of us has faced.

I admit bias here, but do not hesitate to say that much real good (or “good karma”) has been brought into this world by that remarkable group of young men I became friends with back then. So I now think of our interwoven lives as one branch – knotted and twisted but still blossoming – of the Tree of Life. And I’m grateful that there are so many similar branches around the world.

We were Marianists together as we grew into a brotherhood larger and more interesting than we’d first imagined. Then, for various personal and cultural reasons, we were former-Marianists still sharing a bond of brotherhood. We have worked (some still do) in an amazing variety of careers: many were teachers and professors, in science and humanities, engineering and arts; many did corporate personnel work or civic social service; others had successful business careers; some have been very good artists, writers, and actors; others lawyers and doctors and environmental biologists. Some of the priests who left the community continued to serve elsewhere as Catholic priests; some who left the brotherhood became priests or ministers in various Christian denominations. Most have remained Catholics, often active in parish or diocesan ministries and even in national church offices; others (like Joe) took up different forms of belief (his was Buddhist); and many are happily secular in their humanism. As men they experienced the great but ordinary joys and hurts of relationship with lovers and wives (and now some with husbands), with their sons and daughters, with friends and enemies.

That is the context for my memories of Joe, and the memories give particularity to that larger context.

Yet living again with those memories in recent days, and at his funeral this past weekend, I find myself overwhelmed. Because the memories are so many, and so good. But also because I embrace Joe’s belief in karma as the ever-renewing energy of compassion. So for me, quite honestly, these are not just memories, they were and remain realities – real “moments,” if you will, or “pulses” wherein Joe’s richly good karma continues to contribute to that fundamental cosmic flow of compassion. Some might want to think of such reality (as I also do) as the “communion of saints” or the “resurrection and the life.” In times of immediate loss (and of so much death globally) it can be difficult to sustain such belief. Yet they are the gift of two of the world’s great religions.

A brief outline of Joe’s life might be helpful here. After a number of years with the Marianists, teaching in Dayton OH and doing graduate studies at Georgetown and St. Louis U., Joe decided to leave that life. He married, did graduate studies at McMaster University (Ontario) where his son was born, then moved to Vermont. Over the years at St. Mike’s he taught courses on Buddhism and Hinduism and Christianity and became a leader in the faculty.  He frequently took students on study trips to Mexico and El Salvador (as part of his interest in liberation theology) and once to Japan (following his interest in Buddhism). He was very active in work for social justice and was advisor and campaign manager for his wife Althea’s political career in the Vermont House (four terms) and Senate (two terms). More recently he and Althea split the year between his work at St. Mikes and her educational business in Poland. After her death 5 years ago, he began a gradual retirement which allowed him to spend the Fall semester in Burlington and to enjoy their condo in Florida during Vermont’s very cold winters. He chose to do recommended heart-valve replacement surgery this July as part of his transition to full-time retirement. Yet unexpected complications followed the surgery and he died surrounded by family (his son’s and the larger Kroger family).

Joe and I had good arguments from the first – what guys often do as a way of talking.

During one long car trip from Krakow to Budapest we finally seemed to sort out the difference between his Buddhist belief in karma and my Christian conviction about the resurrection, a difference which had grown over years of study and experience. More recently, one evening in San Diego, Joe joined another brother in virtually silencing my counter arguments defending Catholicism – no easy achievement. Even more recently, at his winter home in St. Augustine, my wife joined us in a far ranging dialogue between Presbyterian, Buddhist, and Catholic. At night, on the balcony overlooking the ocean, Joe and I enjoyed cigars and the three of us sipped cognac as the dialogue gently released into the rolling music of the surf and the silent song of star-lit sky.

Joe’s “buddhist catholicism” (my term) was complex. Roman Catholicism was the rich soil of his family’s life and led to his years with the Marianists. He did graduate studies in philosophy at Georgetown and began seminary studies at St. Louis University. After he left the Marianists, Joe married Althea Przybylo, a Polish Catholic woman from Chicago. For his PhD at McMaster he specialized in philosophy of religion with a minor field in Hinduism and Buddhism (my course of studies as well when I joined him there a few years later). He then became professor of religious studies at St. Michael’s.

His move away from a supernaturalist or “two-story universe” worldview reflected currents in theological and religious studies in the 1960s and since – remember the “death of god theology” and the important Marxist influence on “liberation theology” which Joe studied and embraced. But I sensed in our discussions that his shift away from Christianity was most affected by a particularly skeptical form of “historical Jesus research” – an effort to identify the actual words and actions of Jesus of Nazareth in order to distinguish them from later Christian beliefs about Jesus Christ. Said differently, I think he found in Buddhist “naturalism” (no two-story universe) a religious but deeply humanist alternative to the way he understood Christianity.

He regularly taught courses on Buddhism and Hinduism which he had studied not only at McMaster, but later at the University of Hawaii and in his meticulous preparation for classes. He also regularly courses on Christianity. He rejected Christian “metaphysics” as he understood it, but remained deeply Christian in his practice and sensibility. He was very active in the Catholic group Pax Christi  in Burlington and in other Christian work for peace and justice. He will be buried, quite appropriately, next to his wife at a Catholic cemetary in Chicago.

Those who knew him remember his strong and beautiful tenor voice. First noticed by the likes of me in that upstate New York solitude when, each evening, we would encircle an outdoor stature of Mary and one of us (often he) would intone the immensely beautiful plainchant “Salve Regina” before the rest of us joined in full-throated chorus. At McMaster he sang in the Bach Chorale and has since always been involved with some form of choral singing, most recently with a St. Augustine group that did both musical comedy and classical cantatas. On a more personal note, he and Althea sang Paul Stookey’s “Wedding Song” at my wedding in 1971; more recently he sang Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young” at our son Peter’s funeral in 2004. I believe that he sings still today, accompanying the great Cosmic Dance.

Friends would joke about his penchant for order. I’ve already mentioned meticulous class preparation — not pedantic but deeply serious. To enter his office and even more his home was to experience the quiet beauty of such order — in his large library of carefully selected books or the video collection of much-loved films, or just in his kitchen. And he, unlike many of us, knew where each book was and should be. He kept an collection of stand-out student papers which he’d consult when asked for letters of reference or emailed with greetings. And all this literary order was, in his home especially, framed within the quiet beauty of visual art – family photos, to be sure, but even more prominently a number of large and strikingly contemplative Hindu and Buddhist sculptures, especially one bronze Buddha which Althea somehow had managed to ship from Asia despite its size and weight.

His quest for clarity and order came to another beautiful consummation with the publication of Aztec Goddesses and Christian Madonnas: Images of the Divine Feminine in Mexico (Ashgate, 2012), co-authored with his Mexican anthropologist friend Patrizia Granziera. The book gives rich detail about “the divine feminine” in Mexican history and culture, along with pages of images (most of the Madonna photos taken by Joe during travel in rural Mexico). The book is encyclopedic, but with analytic seriousness – not just a collection of facts and images, but a historical and comparative contribution to contemporary feminist studies. It’s not hard to see how his study grew from Catholic and Marianist roots and the later influence of liberation theology. (See my short review and reflection on the book for The Denver Post.)

Joe was above all an adventurer, in his own uniquely steady and persistent way. His first major adventure was joining the Marianists. That, in retrospect, was the beginning of the larger philosophical and religious adventure of his adult life, with its years of study and teaching and travel. Yet there were also smaller adventures. In Vermont he became a licensed pilot, eventually rated for small-engine commercial flight. He did it for fun and because flying also involved the skilled mastery of so much technical detail. He also had “flying fun” on his motorcycle, and undoubtedly read Robert Pirsig’s best seller Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

Yet the great adventure is the one he took with his remarkable wife Althea. It took them together from St. Louis to Canada where their son Andrew (now a medical doctor with the CDC in Atlanta) was born. It led them to his academic work at St. Michael’s and her important contributions to Vermont politics. Along the way she did graduate degrees in politics and law and government at the University of Vermont and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Yet her political career was cruelly interrupted by a brutal cancer which she somehow beat. That scrape with death led her (with him) to a long-dreamed connection with her Polish homeland – where they opened an English language school for business and civic leaders in her family’s hometown east of Krakow. They then commuted between Vermont and Poland, maintaining two careers and occasionally finding vacation time in Florida. Then came a second and mercifully short bout with another cancer that led to her death in 2012.

Let me end with one final form reminiscence. We humans are embodied spirits and nowhere is the spirit more evident than in our faces. Joe had a wonderfully bright and gentle smile that graced his handsome, strong-jawed and clear-eyed face. Yet he had many other characteristic facial gestures: the intentness of his listening and pausing; the slight swing of his head, with quizzical eyes, as he responded to my typically sweeping assertions; the serious look which accompanied his counter assertions; an often relaxed calm of content (most recently for me with cigar and cognac in hand); the energetic intensity of eyes and jaw when he sang; the big happy laugh which I remember especially when he bounced a Polish grand-nephew on his knee. These gestures, as I’ve said and believe, now grace all creation.

In the big picture of world “news,” his life and passing is hardly noticed and will be quickly lost. Even on the great Tree of Life, his bud and blossoming seems small indeed. Yet the small is in fact the most real – the gestures and moments of our lives what really count. The tree grows, as does the dance, only one bud or movement at a time. We know this in the day by day reality of our lives, but need to be reminded lest we get, as T. S. Eliot said, “distracted by distraction.” Perhaps more positively expressed is the Buddhist call to re-minding: “chop wood, carry water.” Amen, and alleluia.