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Our culture focuses on self-discovery.  From our youngest years we are inculcated in the pursuit of “finding out who we are.”  In a psychological sense, we do, indeed, need a strong and healthy sense of Self, of a sense of being that is separate from and unique as compared to others.  Failure to develop a healthy sense of self can lead to all sorts of personality disorders, including narcissism and codependency.

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The Myth of Progressivism

Modern citizens of Western democracies, children of the Enlightenment, profess to be devotees of the scientific method of observation, hypothesis, empirical and repeated processes to test hypotheses, followed by more observation, and leading, so it is affirmed, to a logical conclusion.  And yet, conversely, these same devotees of the scientific method insist on one empirically falsifiable notion: that with enough knowledge, technological know-how, and the scientific method, human nature is perfectable.  Coupled with this belief in the perfectibility of human nature, is its obverse twin: all of human history and society are progressing to ever-more enlightenment and perfectibility.  Thankfully, the ancient Greeks, and with them, all of Christian tradition, did and do not hold to such empirically false dogmas.

The evidence that human nature is both imperfect and wholly imperfectible is all around us.  Murders.  Theft.  Adultery.  Greed.  Let’s simply run through the list of seven deadly vices, or log on to social media.  Better yet: read a Twitter feed.

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An Incomplete Life

One day, I will die.  My life here will come to an end.  I say that not to be morbid, but to state the obvious.  Whatever I am doing in that final moment, wherever I am, when I die, I will leave my life in media res.  The relationships I have cultivated will still be in motion.  The consequences of the words and deeds I have said and done will still trail out behind me.  All the work of my life, all the love I have given, will finally end incomplete.  If I have any material goods to leave to my estate, they will dwindle away, parceled out here and there.  My legacy, whatever it may be, will pass out of my hands.  All that I have, all that I am, will end with much still left to do.

There is a fiction that we build a life to completion.  This is impossible for us.  We are taught to bless one another with the prayer, “God grant you many years.”  But this is a prayer asking that we may be given enough time to turn from the sins, mistakes and hurt we have done and caused others, to do instead those good works that heal and mend, to say those words that soothe and comfort.  Like a Kansas farmer tilling soil, we cultivate a life of good deeds and words, knowing full well not all the good deeds and words of a thousand lifetimes would be enough.  Our brief journey of perhaps seventy-five years will always fall far short, the gap between what should have been and what has been infinitely large.

We do not often consciously think about ourselves, our lives, as incomplete.  But we do so rush around as to fill the gap with so many things, with relationships, with experiences and feeling.  We turn our attentions, our hopes, our anger, outward.  We seek power and control to mold our lives and our circumstances, and other people, to fill this gap within.  But there is no, and never will be, satisfaction of that sort.  We must seek a different fulfillment.

If we have no belief in an after life, our finiteness is ever more presented in bold relief.  But even if we do, if we pause long enough to think it through, we realize entry to that after life will never be successfully predicated on what we do or say.  Even if we were, somehow, to avoid any ill deeds and words, it will be the failures to speak and act, the things we did not do or say, which will provide reason enough to bar our entry.  We might, as Job, wish ourselves never to have been born.

This is not, however, cause for despair.  In fact, it is a great mercy and a relief.  Imperfect creatures as we are, we offer up only that which is ours to offer, namely the imperfect works of love and prayer and mercy such as we are able to give.  We are dust, to be sure, and to dust we shall return.  But in the meantime, we love, we live, and we find joy in the midst of our imperfection.  A joy that is not created by us, but is rather given to us in mercy.

An incomplete life is, we must understand, a gift.  What we have, all that we have, is given.  The very breaths we take are a gift.  These same breaths we will surrender on the appointed day.  The breaths that have warmed the necks of our children as we embrace them at bedtime.  The breaths that have whispered private words in the ears of our beloved.  And when we surrender them, there will still be so much more to do.

This, then, is mercy and grace.  One day I will die.  My life here will come to an end.  And when I die, I will still be in the middle of things.  Things I have done and left undone.  Words I said or failed to say.  I will not be able even to offer these at the end.  In the end, it is the very fact of my incomplete life that I will only be able to offer.  It was given to me in the first place.  I will only be able to offer it back, in trust, asking mercy for my stewardship of it.

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To Speak of the Sacred

It has been understood for millennia that what makes humans unique above all creatures is our power of speech, that is to say, our ability to communicate.  We certainly have the capacity for the most rudimentary forms of communication: “food,” “water,” “hungry,” “danger.”  But we also have a unique capacity to speak of immaterial realities: “love,” “spirit,” “god,” “heaven.”  In the preceding and most recent centuries, some have taken great pains to explain how alike we are to certain animal species.  But one glorious and irrefutable example suffices to emphasize our uniqueness: we can communicate about things we cannot see, and about those things that are not strictly necessary for material survival.  Monastics who never procreate can speak of the sublimities of divine love.  Yeoman farmers who will never study Kant or Descartes may nonetheless speak of existential angst; which speech does nothing to plant or harvest the crops.

Indeed, it is particularly the most obvious inutility of certain aspects of human speech that make us most unique and make us most human.  But perhaps such inutility is only obvious from a certain perspective.  For the power of articulation is precisely the ability to grasp the abstract realities from concrete particulars.  The observations of dozens of planting seasons yields the deduction of planetary motion.  That is to say, the uniquely human power of speech is the necessary comprehension of the realities underlying the perceived world.

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The Place of Reason and Science

If you’re looking to build a house, a hammer is an indispensable tool.  But it is not the only tool you’ll need.  To build a house, you’ll need a large array of tools and materials.  To insist that a hammer, and only a hammer, is the sort of tool you need to build a house is, at best, impractical.  It may also be delusional.

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Sorrow and the Poetry of Healing

Ours is a world of stilted prosody, flat and banal, the flourish of ad copy, the etymology of the focus group.  It is speech calculated to intended effect, never deeper than the sheen, no wiser than the fortune cookie paper slip.  It’s a monotone babble, furiously expounding the nothingness that fills that wasteland of spinning static, born of an ersatz orchestra of twittering chatter.

But we are made for much more.

In a mystery, we come to this at times when we are hollowed out by pain and loss, the trauma that raises that terrible tonicity, the deepening of the heart in lament.  Our mundane routine shifts, that sudden departure from the expected, the wrench that shreds us from within.  Suddenly what was, is gone, its fading imprint turning us inside out.  And the identity which shaped us is shattered at the leaving.  We are torn, the grasp on ourselves loosened.  We turn, looking for the poles.

We cannot speak of it.  The quotidian vocabulary no longer satisfies.  We are dumb, mute before the monstrosity which our world has become.

In that confrontation, sorrow stretches the soul into poetry.  We are given the unexpected meter and rhyme of tears and heartache.  New words are shaped, and we name again the things around us.  Including ourselves.

Trauma and loss are a sort of soul amnesia, the forgetting of the self that once was.  The stanzas which are written by tears, however, call out from the shadows the one we have been and are becoming.

It is through sorrow’s lament, that keening of the soul, that the self remembers whence it came, remembers and burns in that ache and that agony of loss.

In that piecing together of the self from the broken shards amid the ashes, there is a poetry that shakes and shapes, at once terrifying and comforting.  There I am, but who am I now?

We come to ourselves again, in these bits and pieces, glued together by compassionate embrace, the loving exhalation, inarticulate and fecund of meaning.  The breath trembles with the vibration of new harmony, the melody of a minor key, a refrain different but the same.

We are no longer, yet still we are.  New and fantastic, unknown to ourselves, yet known from the foundation of the world.  Poetry creatures in a prosaic world, we are misshapen and misnamed, but still anchored in the love which was ours, given and received, while being born in this strange new moment.

But ever the ache.  Hearts broken and not fully to be mended in this life.  Stuck in between until that reunion of lovers and loved.  Now singing, ever singing, in minor key, but lovely and beautiful.

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On Tragedy and Loss; and Thanksgiving

The U.S. has been affected by three hurricanes and a mass shooting in the last several weeks.  These are only the tragedies that make for news ratings.  There are countless, untold tragedies affecting individuals and their families that occur everyday.  Incapacitating illness, death, betrayal, economic loss.  Suffering and loss are grievous burdens.  They take their toll on all of us, especially if it is our loved ones who suffer and we can do nothing to alleviate their pain.

What makes it even more difficult in our twenty-first century is that we have lost a great deal of our ability to endure suffering and hardship.  Advances in medicine alleviate many great evils that have afflicted humanity throughout history.  The eradication of crippling diseases.  The prolongation of lifespans.  We are trained to end pain as quickly as possible.  A headache requires little else than an acetaminophen tablet and a glass of water.  In minutes the pain is gone.  Psychologically, we are not equipped to endure prolonged pain.  Microwavable meals.  On demand access to entertainment, on our phones wherever we are.  Our whims and desires met at a moment’s notice anywhere, anytime.  So when tragedy strikes, we are not equipped with patience and fortitude.

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