Friday, November 17, 2017

On the Quest for Purity of Heart

It has been a while since I have written a blog post, and that is about to change.  I know that it is important to remain modelling that contemplative spirit in reading that has been such a core, along with writing, of my spiritual practice.  One of my "peeps" suggested that this is the place where I can teach in my ideal way, writing what I want to say and want to do, even if I cannot always do that in the classroom.  So here goes (again)...

So I am here, in my office, listening to Carol King radio on Pandora, which has shifted to play The Beatles' "Here Comes the Sun."  Perfect song with an amazing lyric!  In the gym in the mornings and elsewhere, I have been studying--meditating really--on the rule of Benedict and the commentary of Georg Holzherr, recommended by the abbot of the monastery where I am a confraternity member.  The last couple of days, I have been reading in the Rule and the commentary on humility (Benedict's seventh chapter in that translation).  I struggle with this virtue, because I feel that it must be distinguished from denigration and, following close on denigration's heels, despair.  I think people who have suffered abuse, and particularly those who have been members of abused minorities (such as people in America of African dissent; #BlackLivesMatter) have a hard time knowing the difference, because too often they have been forced to be humble or have been humiliated (and continue to be), but not in a holistic, life-affirming manner that Christ teaches.  (I have been teaching Alice Walker's "In Search of my Mother's Garden" today, and that essay draws a very similar point.)

In the Rule, St. Benedict lists eleven "steps" of ascending through the practice of humility toward full compliance with God.  Benedict's first step is to keep God "always before" your eyes.  It is accepting the fact that God is panoptical, an idea that (when practiced socially) is quite destructive (see Foucault, Discipline and Punish), but which I take to mean that we always keep ourselves mindful of God, praying constantly, or keeping the lifeline to The Spirit open (Thich Nihat Hanh talked about this connectedness beautifully on Oprah's show Super Soul Sunday, which available on OWN network On Demand) at all times, walking in peace and centeredness.  It means that we are surrounded at all times by love and grace!  What a wondrous thing that is as a first step on the ascent of humility!  Amen.

Explaining this step, Benedict writes that "we are forbidden to to do our own will, for as Scripture teaches us: Turn away from your desires (Sir 18.30)."  Later in the same passage in the Rule, Benedict cites the continuation of Sirach 18:30, which wisely counsels: "Pursue not your own lusts." (Love the Wisdom of Sirach!!)  I struggle with the question of distinguishing my own desires from God's desires for me.  That connectedness to the lifeline of the Spirit is so key, as we walk in His insight and His light.  For Benedict, this means obedience to God and to the Abbot which, along with stability and conversion, are the hallmarks of the Benedictine way.  I think we are given those in our lives to trust in and obey as well--our priest may be one, or a personal trainer we trust; a partner who we know as deeply as they know us can also help here as well.  And this obedience is not mindless, but reverent.  Also, not everyone deserves that respectful, thoughtful obedience; a boss at work is not in the same position, for example, for we are not meant to mindlessly follow anyone, although we should respect those who have been granted authority over us.

The second step models this as well, focusing on Christ's statement (in John 6.38) that "I have come not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me."  We much be attuned deeply and reverently to God and those we sense a mutual Godly spirit in (as is related, the Spirit moves as it wills) to detect and follow what God's wants for us and our lives.

More anon...

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

And When I Die

                What I will miss when I die are many things: walks in the park, holding hands with my wife, chocolate and vanilla, curling up with a good book, shopping for books, and many, many other things.  I will miss friendship, because I am convinced from the few mystical suggestions in Revelations that we will know each other but differently than we do now, whatever that means.  I may be becoming somewhat more rationalist as I age, more of a deist, concerned with the here and the now, for I do believe with real certainty that the life beyond this one will be favorable and shine like the sun. 

                When I die, I am sure that I will miss certain aspects of church, although I imagine that worship will be more direct and even more meaningful.  My wife and I became—I became—Episcopalian/Anglican because (1) the English connection, (2) the richness of the liturgy, (3) the meditative silences that seem built into the service, and finally (4) the tradition of reasoning about faith.  We switched to Anglican worship and communion while living in Arkansas to get away as far as possible from the unrepentant Southern Baptist influence—they have never come to terms with their corporate sins of slavery, sexism, racism, and a general disregard for others.  (I sometime think these are the sins we are still living without acknowledging, which is why we have as a nation ended up as an angry, xenophobic people electing a man who is a confirmed racist and sexist to our highest office.)  In the name of “Christian” love, some have corrupted society into a panopticon that does nothing but judge others as unworthy. 

When we lived in Arkansas, our last landlords were Southern Baptist, and they were nasty people because we did not fit their mode.  The female member of that family became incensed when Angie, through no fault of her own, lost her job at the school where we taught and had to go back to waitressing.  She said to me that she hadn’t thought she was renting to “that kind of folk” when she rented us the house.  She made every excuse in the book to come over early on Saturday morning when she knew my wife had worked late the night before and was sleeping in, always demanding to “talk to Angie” about this or that.  Our next door neighbor, a sweet older southern woman, told us that the woman had it out for us; and even the cleaning lady who came in as we were preparing to move out (and move back East) told us that the landlord’s wife had described the house as wrecked when it wasn’t even mildly dirty.  (The female member of the landlord couple simply hated the fact that we turned one of the front rooms into a bookroom instead of a nursery—even though books do not throw up, color the walls, mess up the carpet, etc.  The house had berber carpet in a slightly off-white, which showed every dirt speck and was the most uncomfortable carpeting I have ever set on—like prickles of a cactus telling you to get up, keep moving, keep working for the man…).  While there were certainly exceptions—and many of whom remain dear friends—I have to say that that area of the Bible Belt had an evil, evil culture that was damaging to us and which I do not miss.

                I guess when I die I will miss memory as well, perhaps even most of all.  I know our memories if kept will be refined and refocused, yet there now is a certain joie de vive in remembering and lamenting those who have gone on before us; a certain pain-for-pain-sake, divine delectation in the quiet languishing of a broken, grieving heart.  I think this aspect of my character, rather akin to the joyful wallowing in misery that May Sarton describes in the French writer Collette in Sarton’s journal Recovering, comes out particularly in my loving to listen to singers who have passed—Mama Cass, Minnie Ripperton, Tammi Terrell, Karen Carpenter, Ella Fitzgerald (especially her aging recordings of the ‘80s and early 90s).  I also seem to enjoy “old” but still living artists, like Willie Nelson, who is just amazing; and the late recordings of Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash (where I do not necessarily listen to their earlier recordings much if at all).  There is just a wonderful band of these aging country male and female singers that I have found very commensurate with this perhaps deliberate miserableness on my part, but that also strengthens me to live out my life strongly and forthrightly, because after you get to a certain age, you do not care what others think or how others evaluate you because you stand requisite in your own skin and in your own space.  At times, I hope I have and can achieve that level of confidence and certainty as well.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

On Finding Yourself Through Reading

The Problem Addressed:

Finding myself through reading has been a constant in my life and, recently, this contemplative practice has taken some interesting turns that I want to share.  For me, reading has always been a personal obsession, something I enjoy but also something that I feel driven to do as well.  The question for me has often been a balance between what do I want to read and what do I need or feel obligated to read.  The idea of needing to read something may seem odd to some of you, but for me it is about feeling prepared professionally and being the kind of model of the intellectual and contemplative--and informed--life that I what to exhibit to students, readers, and others.

Sometimes, this quest has led me down some strange alleys.  I have discovered over the years, for instance, that I sometimes read books because I feel I need to know them to continue to pursue a life as a responsible citizen.  Reading Dark Money: This Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right and Black Flags: The Rise of Isis have fallen into this category; both are excellent and highly-informative, but honestly not as necessary for me to read to inform my opinions as I originally felt they were.  I read them more for ammunition to support the positions I already knew I had and had thought long and hard to get.  A slight caveat to this observation was reading One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America, in that this book darkened my views of American capitalism even more (I am a professed socialist) and its insidious impact and corrupting of American Christianity.  I must admit, I even lost a lot of respect for Billy Graham as a result for much of his early engagement with corporate America and overturning of much of the connection between Christianity and social justice modeled by that wonderful president FDR.  Sad, sad, sad...

Today, I realized in discussion that I have the tendency to read what others think I should read, perhaps far too often--this is a bad habit for a reader.  Many of the suppositions of what others think I should read are more my own inner voices than anyone's actual suggestion (I love discussing books and getting recommendations from friends I trust), but still carrying this burden which makes me always feel not caught up, not knowledgeable enough, is insidious.  For instance, a good friend of mine chided me once years ago for being a southerner who hates southern literature, and this friend is accurate.  In part, there are two reasons for this: one is that I am a West Virginian, which is not southern in the sense that we are a state that seceded from the secession, so we are really northern in that odd way.  Secondly, and more importantly, much Gothic southern literature (especially Flannery O'Connor) reminds me too much of growing up in rural Appalachia surrounded by lots of poverty, unemployment, and ignorance.  It seems a little too close to home; and being where I am (or was) is not really at the heart of why I read.  (I am not quite sure what is, however, but I know that this is not.)

I also tend to read about other areas of mild interest to me such as the American Civil War, in part because of my father's wonderful habit of taking me to historical sights when we traveled.  This was great for me growing up, as not only did it open me to a profound and abiding interest in history (my other major as an undergrad), but Dad also always treated me to a book that I could read about the place we had visited when I got home.  I still have many of those books, and remember the trips and sights as a result.  Because of the part of the country where we lived in as well as the areas we visited, the American Civil War was a presence, so I have spent a major portion of my reading on this sabbatical semester working my way through Shelby Foote's massive three-volume history of the American Civil War.  It is a wonderful book, by the way, and I admire his clarity, but I do sometimes think this is a holdover for me from feelings of inadequacy from arguments online about the American Civil War, slavery, and the confederate flag when I know full-well how I view these issues.  Frankly, at heart, America and American history just don't interest me that much, except when it was still part of the British empire.

I sometimes think too that as a scholar of British literature and culture living in America, I carry the burden of feeling out-of-touch when I do not read the literature of this country; I sometimes wonder if my colleagues in American literature feel the same guilt if they do not read the British literature that seems pressing at the moment.

The Tentative Solution (Clearing the Deck):

So my new goal is to stop the guilt, quit the pile-up, and clear the decks.  I am asking myself: What do I really want to read?  What will make me more insightful in my research and teaching?  What burdens from others (real or imaginary) do I carry and how can I cast them out?  I need to divest--divest of the doubt, the clutter, the game-playing.  At a literal level, this means clearing some of the stacks around my house where I pile books I feel I need to read (even if I do not really want to read them at heart).

Part of these feelings of inadequacy go back to the wonderful and heady days of graduate school, where there was always something new and interesting to read in your area of specialization.  Yet this had a darker side as well.  One lingering effect of writing my dissertation "Pious Readers, Polemical Fiction" under a director who had his own ideas about what I should be writing, is the "game" he played of "find the book."  In conference on the project, he would offer a critique of a portion of the dissertation that then turned out to be from a book he was reading or had read; I could not address the topic fully until I had found that book and absorbed its arguments.  More frustratingly, he would never tell me what book he was referencing; he would just say "think about it" (yet my thought was never graded adequate until I found and cited the book on his mind).  This game of his has created a sense of there always being something missing when I am writing academically;  In fact, when my research has been reviewed for publication, in both positive and negative reviews, I have seldom received the message that there was a key article or book that I had missed which I needed to consult to improve or finish the piece under consideration.  That is the message I need carry forward, and not the "find the book" game of yesteryear.

So, as of today, I am clearing the decks.  I have several things I want to read, and several things I know will help my research on the book I am writing on Susan Sontag, which has been progressing quite well.  I am going to quit feeling guilty for not getting to everything; I am going to re-energize myself by reading in my favorite period of literature and staying focused on the connections between the Enlightenment and Modernism in Britain and Europe.

One final anecdote that is helping me along: Jimmy Carter in the 1940s applied for a Rhodes Scholarship, a high honour, as he relates in his book A Full Life (I am listening to him read this book on CD in the car--excellent!).  It came down to an interview between him and one other candidate.  He was passed over for the scholarship because the other scholar told the Rhodes Scholars Board that he was really not interested in anything beyond the date of 1603, the death of Queen Elizabeth I! I understand why this man got the scholarship, as does Carter.  This is a model anecdote for me as I go forward with clearing and considering, moving confidently ahead as a reader, writer, and contemplative.

Cheers, readers, and much peace to all of you.

Monday, March 14, 2016

On the Writing Life (Somewhat Academically Speaking)

I am in the process of preparing a presentation on writing and the writing life academically for the Northeast Modern Language Association's meeting in Hartford, CT this coming week.  I would like to share the presentation, so please feel free to offer any comments or critiques.  Cheers, readers!
Zen Publishing: From Presentation to Juried Article
                My presentation today will be a personal reflection on what I have learned about the writing process and how I have moved work from its beginning as an idea to publication as an article or book chapter.  The three stages I want to address are process, presentation and publication; I will talk much and personally about process, some about presentation, and a little about publication at the end, as that will be more fully discussed by the other panelists.
I have been on sabbatical this term—my second one—and have reflecting on what makes this one somewhat more successful than the first one.  On my first sabbatical, I completed the writing goals that I promised, but I also gained near thirty pounds and was quite unhappy.  I have thought for years about doing a talk called “surviving your sabbatical,”—that is, once I had “survived” one.  My second sabbatical has worked much better as I have become much more contented with my writing and with my solitude, and this is in part because I have embraced more fully the importance of solitude and silence.  Memoirist May Sarton offers a useful distinction between solitude and loneliness, when she writes to the effect that solitude derives from a richness of inner resources whereas loneliness shows inner deprivation.  I have been using this sabbatical to more fully reorient myself and my career as a writer and scholar, thinking about the ways that both intersect with the contemplative life.  For me, writing has always been a contemplative activity, in a religious but non-doctrinaire sense of the term.  It is true that I take my faith seriously.  I am an Anglo-Catholic, a member of a gay-affirmative church, and deep believer in the Benedictine model for the religious contemplative.  I am also officially an inquirer with an order of Anglican contemplatives called the Companions of Our Lady of Walsingham, which is loosely a Benedictine order; and I started my second sabbatical by a retreat with the Benedictine Brothers at St. Gregory’s Abbey in Three Rivers, Michigan back in January  (I am returning again for some time in May); I am also learning to icon-write with a master iconographer. 
When I focus on process, two books I turn to for encouragement are Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within and Jane Anne Staw’s Unstuck: A Supportive and Practical Guide to Working Through Writer's Block—both volumes which stay perpetually on my nearby reference shelf.  Staw gives a nice formula for what each draft of a project should achieve; I have this posted in my office just in case I get stuck or feel overwhelmed, trying to (this is disaster!) write the final draft before I have even put pen to paper.  Goldberg is a constant inspiration to me, although I have only read her words and never had the pleasure of meeting her.  Goldberg reminds us to stay grounded as we work, focusing on the here and the now.  As she writes, “try sitting…and without too much thinking begin to write.  This means letting go…Try for good, strong first sentences.”  Remember, sometimes a few good sentences is enough of a beginning, enough of a way to move forward the next time.
The simple mind is a goal that we should have for our writing.  Simple mind is different from being simplistic; it is a radical openness that helps as we research and write, both critically and creatively.  Ralph Waldo Emerson reflects that “Whenever a mind is simple and receives a divine wisdom, old things pass away,—means, teachers, texts, temples fall; it lives now, and absorbs past and future into the present hour.  All things are made sacred by relation to it,—one thing as much as another.  All things are dissolved to their centre by their cause, and in the universal miracle petty and particular miracles disappear.  This is and must be.”[1] We find our voice by this process, which in Buddhism is referred to as beginner’s mind.  By keeping beginner’s mind, which is called shoshin, refers to a radical openness and humility toward the writing in specific and life in general.  There is a time for self-promotion in job interviews and other moments when people are asking “what makes this person special”; even here, arrogance will work against you.  But when you face the writing at your desk, in your notebook, or on your laptop, arrogance will literally kill any spark you have.  Keep open, keep relaxed, keep the peace—these are key for your development from idea to article. 
This brings me to a couple of points I wish to highlight about the writing life:  (1) Embrace the solitary life of the writer.  Writing is a solitary activity, no matter how much we and others celebrate collaboration, and takes lengthy times of quiet reading and reflection to find our voice and vision as academic writers.  The second point I want to make is (2) Have other solitary but creative activities that you do as and when you write intensively, as on sabbatical or research trips or even just time off from teaching and/or administrative activities.  Balance is of major importance.  Most of us have turned our first loves of reading and writing into our careers; it is important we find other expressions of creativity like cooking, painting, music—even meditative housework as a means of keeping our writing fresh and vibrant.  The writing must come first, but these other kinds of solitary creative outlets are important as well for our health and well-being.
Once you get started with a project, keep the momentum going.  Franz Kafka reflects rightly that “from a certain point onward there is no longer any turning back.  That is the point that must be reached.”[2]  This is an important insight, for there is such a thing as spiritual momentum that comes with continue working on a project, a point after the start when the energy of the project can and will take over and will carry you onward.  Beginnings are often filled with willed effort, for we are moving from a point of stasis to movement, and even physics—one of the dreaded STEM disciplines—teaches us that it takes more energy to start a rock rolling down a hill than once that rock is started.  It is important even here to always write—keep a notebook or computer page, require yourself a page or word count per day (more on this later).  However, once the momentum starts, let it carry you.  If you have had to step away from a project for a while (and who among us hasn’t?), start by reading and making notes, perhaps on a notecard or in a notebook—something to keep alongside the reading.  Make the notes that come to mind without really changing anything except minor typos as you reacquaint yourself with your work. 
Which brings me to my third point: (3) While areas of specialty are important, they are not paramount to all that we do as writers.  It is important that we keep our areas of specialty up by continuing to read and research in that area of specialty.  However, after the dissertation (and perhaps after tenure, depending on your institution’s stated goals for you), pay attention to synchronicity.  My area of specialty is the Enlightenment in England and Europe, but I have published broadly, and today am writing on the Enlightenment legacy in Modernism, a project that happened indirectly as I tried to backtrack a few years ago over some works I had heard about in graduate school but had never read. 
Final major point in process:  (4) Honour your process, whatever it is, and keep it varied by trying new methods.  For me, that means sometimes drafting right on the computer; for others, it can be returning to keep a physical notebook or notecards.  It also means recognizing what works best for you.  (This is why I think it is so important for Masters Students to do a thesis if they plan to go on for the Ph. D. because of what you learn about yourself and your solitary writing and research habits.)  Honouring your process also means knowing what works best for you as a method for writing itself.  Some people, such as my wife who is also a scholar, write a paper from beginning to end after lots of thought and process.  Writing for her is a distinct moment toward the end of the time set for a work when it needs to be accomplished, and after much preparation.  For me, I write best in pieces and not with a deadline looming.  Often, I set a goal of word count or page count:  Stephen King in his volume On Writing says that he writes 1000 words every morning.  Because I write critical nonfiction and poetry, I am have set the goal of two notebook pages or, if I am writing directly to laptop, 500 words minimum.  I also write from the inside out of a project.  Often, work I am doing will start as a kind of commonplace book, a collection of quotations and some notes from various moments in works that strike me as interesting and very relevant to my thinking.  These are often collected over a long period and often the connections are not obvious to me or any else at first.  I normally can only vaguely say at the beginning what I am writing about, but it is enough and it keeps me progressing.
When it comes to the presentation, I normally draft a precis or abstract from these various notes when a conference or session CFP seems to be in line with some of the thoughts I have been pursuing.  This moment can often galvanize the work I have been collecting and reflecting on in my notebooks.  Recently, because I have been writing a book, I have drawn my presentations from a cut-down version of an already longer chapter.  What you are looking for primarily in academic presentations whether at conferences or even among colleagues and students on your campus is feedback, a sense of being heard and perhaps some suggestion of where to go with your research and analysis.  I do offer one caution here, though, about using conferencing as a place to air rougher material or works-in-progress: make sure that the conference you are presenting is affirmative and critical, open to discussion and not often or merely a place for grandstanding.  Although the national meeting of the Modern Language Association is a wonderful place to present and hear the best work in our field, I would not present works-in-progress there because it is a place where many folks, especially those seeking permanent positions, use the presentations of others to show off their own work by tearing others down (I have seen this numerous times there).  Just be careful if your work is work-in-progress at conferences of that ilk; in other words, know your audience.
Macro-Revision, which normally comes after the presentation and feedback you receive, is my least favorite part of the writing process because it takes minute care and is picayune and obsessive in nature.  Yet it is perchance the most important part.  As in a film, the editing often makes or breaks the project.  Dig into it, embrace the editor or critic we all have within; strive for perfection, but accept excellence.  It is key during this time to let the paper alone for a few days—up to a week is best—while you work on some other writing project.  Then, you can go back with fresh eyes.  I often first prepare an outline at this stage—a brief, one page outline is my suggestion, though length is important only insofar that you a very long amount of time writing it, say no more than a half hour.  This is a moment to return to first thoughts—that beginner’s mind again!—to see what it is you think you want to say.  Then, use that outline to read and think through the paper once more;  keep it by your side or somewhere near as you read, perhaps a notebook or on a sheet of paper, so that you can readily reference it.
As you may have guessed already, I am a strong believer in synchronicity as a writer, and this has led to two practices (if they can be called that) that have proven successful for me the publication stage of the writing process.  One of these is a strong belief in the power of juxtapositions.  The other is a belief already mentioned that writers need to be open to research and writing in more than just the dissertation area.  The first—that of juxtaposition--has happened to me numerous times.  One of the articles that I wrote entitled “Tracing the Phallic Imagination: Male Desire and Female Aggression in Philip Roth’s Academic Novels” came from a plane trip where I was alternately reading the lesbian film criticism of Lynda Hart and, at night, a chapter or two of Philip Roth’s The Dying Animal.  I saw a connection when through Hart I codified some of the notions of the fear of female sexual power that Roth’s novel explored as feminists became more present and powerful in the academy of the 1990s.  While this idea was in my head, I applied to a conference CFP on sexual politics; at that conference, I received some nice feedback on the presentation that caused me to expand it and, once that happened, I happened on a CFP for a volume on the academic novel.  This article has opened many doors for me, actually, as I have published other work on Roth and also been a blind peer reviewer for journals on Roth as well.  It is interesting in reflecting that I am neither Jewish nor a scholar of modern literature, and yet Roth and his work continue to interest and provoke reflection for me.  In other words, look for what feeds the soul more than what merely styles you as an academic of a certain means.  Your writing will be stronger as a result and your life will be more meaningful, which is why most of us are in this profession anyway.  Cheers to you, and best wishes on your writing process and the (mostly) solitary writing life. 

[1]  Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Major Prose, eds. Ronald A. Bosco and Joel Myerson (Cambridge & London: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2015), 137.
[2] Quoted in in The Sheltering Sky (1949) by Paul Bowles

Monday, December 21, 2015

Contemplation of the Magnificat

First, I wanted to say a sad goodbye to my friend Lenora P. Blouin who is pictured with me in the profile picture for this blog.  May she rest in peace!  She was an amazing bibliographer of May Sarton's works and made such a marvelous impression on me when I was invited to speak at the Sarton Centennial in York, Maine a few years back.  She will be missed.

The fourth Sunday of Advent is one of my favorite Sundays of the year because it focuses on the Virgin Mary and her beautiful poem and vision of the kingdom, the Magnificat (found in the Gospel of St. Luke).  One of the most beautifully inspired pieces of Scripture, this song moves me every time I read and reflect on it.  I wanted to share some of those reflections here.

Mary was not one to raise herself up, but she does not diminish herself either.  While she praises God for his "greatness," she recognizes her own lowliness: "my spirit rejoices in God my Savior;/for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant."  She allows God's choice to lift her, as she tells us that "from this day all generations will call me blessed" because God has raised her.  She links this insight into a key observation that "He has mercy on those who fear him/in every generation."  Her witness is one of humility and insight, not self-denigration.  She is not a woman who fits easily into heterosexist schemes of patriarchal domination; in fact, I would say be very suspicious of any Christian (man) who refers to her as "just a woman," for that is a pretty good sign that s/he does not respect or build women up in his ministry.  In fact, I would leave a church that referred to Mary this way.  She is to be called "blessed," adored, not denigrated or reduced.

The next lines of the Magnificat accentuate Mary's position in God and her relevance; there, she refers to God "scatter[ing]...the proud in their conceit" with the "strength of his arm."  God is at work here; what he does he does through us and are agency, guided by Him and His Spirit.  Mary teaches us that a just society "cast[s] dow the mighty from their thrones" and "lift[s] up the lowly."  Our politics are not in line with the kingdom when we work against the poor and the lowly and our connectedness with the world, and instead vote in line with the rich (or worse vote as if we were or intend to be rich; remember, Christ tells us that "the love of  money is the root of all kinds of evil.") And, yes, Christ also says that his kingdom is not of this world, but note that those statements (see Luke and John) are made to the Pharisees and normally refer to taking up arms to protect him when he is bound for the cross to propitiate for our sinfulness. The fact that the kingdom will not be fully realized in this world does not let us off the hook for ethical action.  As our wonderful presiding bishop Michael Curry recently stated, "Jesus came to show us the way out of the darkness, into the dream." As our bishop William Franklin reflects in a recent email, "God's dream, Bishop Curry said, is to reorder the way things are, to turn the world upside down.  To create a world without war or suffering, without injustice and bigotry, without violence and hatred.  A world ruled by love.  A world where we really do do unto others as we would have them do unto us."  In this email, Bishop Franklin takes this one step further, noting the error many Americans (and non-Americans) make: "Some people turn their backs on the exhausted and traumatized Syrian refugees who are fleeing war in their own nation, viewing them all as potential terrorists. We have the instinctive reaction to pull up the drawbridges, circle the wagons and say that there is no room in the inn. There is no small irony that at the same time, we celebrate the Holy Family, homeless refugees in the Middle East fleeing a vindictive ruler."  Mary's song can guide us to the way to a better (Christian) ethics.

The next lines of the Magnificat show us what our ethics should be when she sings that the Father through Christ and His followers "has filled the hungry with good things;/ and the rich he hath sent away empty."  Oh, if only we could vote in such a manner and practice our faith in such a manner that this were true, that humility and knowledge would guide the political process, and not machismo and wealth!  A president like our current one has been a model of the kind of leader we need in the public realm, a witness that superpowers need not be bullies (although he too has bullied some; it is hard not too when there is so much power in one country's hands!) but can be guides and can admit mistakes and correct them!

This is the vision, the promise that is made to us through Christ and that compels us not to think of ourselves but others as we vote, as we act, as we share this Advent and Christmas seasons and into the new year as well.  God has come to help his servants, for "he has remembered his promise of mercy," a promise initially given to Israel but extended through Christ (and St. Paul) to the whole world.  We can rest and also act from this "promise" expressed in the Magnificat that God through Christ (and Mary) made "to Abraham and his children forever."  Amen, and have a blessed Holiday (the word comes from "holy day") season.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

On Dinaw Mengestu

Dear Readers,

I have been doing a bit of thinking this summer about the work of Harold Bloom and particularly his writing about the struggle between works that for him is the key to whether or not a work becomes canonical.  On reading Dinaw Mengestu's novel The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears--a work that Bloom would probably not consider canon-worthy overall--I have been struck how this "agonistic struggle" between various works  (Bloom's terminology) occurs in this novel, particularly through its allusions, and come to the conclusion that perhaps the canonical works Mengestu surveys are just too big to be digested.  In Bloom's terminology, Mengestu must not be (mis)reading the canon quite well enough.

First, a note about Bloom's work: I am struck now by how many women and minority works are included in his book The Western Canon: The Books and the School of the Ages (1994) than how many are excluded, as I was when I first read the work in graduate school.  My graduate program was right in seeing Bloom as old guard and a barricade against inclusion, but they were wrongheaded in dismissing his theories, for Bloom shares many of our values as proponents of literary studies.  When he is not pushed in a corner (which he seems to be) and made defensive, he can be quite a thoughtful expounder of the values of avid reading and study that many if not most of us share who have invested our lives in literary study.  And, additionally, his values can indeed be shaped to be quite useful for the kinds of recovery work many of us do of voices that have either just come on the scene (as Mengestu's) or been lost somewhere in the past.

And now a bit more about Mengestu's novel: Reading Bloom this summer has made me intensely aware of (sensitive to) allusion and what he calls "intratextual" relations (I think Julia Kristeva's term "intertextual" is as accurate and more understandable).  I will take one example of how this intertextual relationship shapes Mengestu's novel.  The title is a translation from the Italian of the last lines of Dante's Inferno, as Dante (the protagonist of the poem) leaves Hell with Virgil and walks into the light of the stars of night.  The lines themselves almost sigh with relief; I suspect that the Italian may even more sound like a sigh, as many of the translations do.  The lines are quoted by our protagonist Sepha's friend Joseph, who as an Ethiopian immigrant, has tried college as a way of legitimizing himself in America without success.  He likes, when he gets drunk, to say the two lines that contain the title.

The lines are cited in the novel twice--once when Joseph is described as saying them and then later in the protagonist's voice as he returns to stasis, sitting on the front steps of his store, at the end of the novel.  In Bloom's view, Mengestu has challenged Dante by trying to incorporate him (agonism again), and in essence I think Bloom would be partially correct.  I tend to think that what Mengestu is signifying is that Sepha, having left Ethiopia where he saw his father beaten to death before his mother and younger brother and come to America is an emergence from Hell into a kind of modern Purgatory in the streets of the city of Washington.  (There is some suggestion as well of ascending to a better level of Purgatory than the one at the very bottom, when Naomi and her mother begin a kind of gentrification of the area through their renovation of a dilapidated old mansion just across from Sepha's store, but this fails miserably and the area is in even worse shape by the end of the novel.)

Now, in Bloom's idea, Mengestu must overcome Dante in his representation to achieve canonical status, and he certainly does not do this (who could?).  Yet somehow the novel is successful in locating Sepha and Joseph's stories within the framework of traditional high literature.  By taking on Dante and alluding to him in his title and references, Mengestu reaches for something more than just the now that is the context of his novel.  He shows his awareness of the literature of the past and suggests that it still provides for us many lessons and nourishment that can continue to inform our lives and creations today.  That in and of itself is a powerful message, and perhaps the best that the novel can do.  It certainly makes it a worthwhile reading experience.  Cheers, friends!

Thursday, July 30, 2015

On Sanctification

[I am in a reading phase for the next chapter of my book on Sontag; it covers her second collection of essays, Styles of Radical Will, which I am finding increasingly indebted to Jean-Paul Sartre's major philosophical works Being and Nothingness and St. Genet, so I am studying these along with Sontag's collection and a wonderful book on apophatic theology in contemporary literature by Christopher J. Knight.  So in the meantime I will be giving my thoughts to the blog to keep the writing flowing.  Enjoy, dear friends!]

I love the following quotation from Benedictine brother David Steindl-Rast that I recently found; he writes: "What is truly a part of our spiritual path is that which brings us alive.  If gardening brings us alive, that is part of our path, if it is music, if it is conversation...we must follow what brings us alive."  I realize that for me as an Anglican Christian and non-sectarian contemplative, the process Steindl-Rast addresses here is what I would label (theologically-speaking) as sanctification. If we prayerfully do that which "brings us alive," we do it in the Spirit and with gratitude; we are becoming sanctified via Christ's agency in us and He through us sanctifies the activity we are doing. It is that simple and that profound at the same time.

Reading and studying the works of May Sarton and Thomas Merton are what first taught me this valuable lesson that Steindl-Rast has reminded me of today.  Sarton believed that writing itself was a spiritual practice, especially poetry, and that we set aside the routine time of writing as a sacred and uninterrupted period of each one of our days. Sarton is completely correct, and she occasionally had to be quite gruff with people who wanted to disrupt that important time.  I tend to feel the same way; I like to keep mornings for writing and I get very upset when, especially during the semester, someone wants my Saturday mornings, which is often the only sustained time I have to write all week during term.  So if I too am gruff to keep that time sacred, I apologize but am not really sorry.

As writers and contemplatives, we have to keep our "alive" time and practices, whatever they are, sacrosanct so that the processes that restore and renew us and bring us more in line with what God wants for and through us can happen.  Yes, I am an introvert, and probably on the extreme side of that spectrum of extrovert/introvert.  Indeed, my blog probably reads strangely to those who are truly or extremely extroverts, but then again, aren't most writers who find their best fellowship with their notebooks (paper and virtual) introverts?

Which brings me to another practice which keeps me alive (apart from worship on our Sabbath, which is its sacred space and deserves another space and time to discuss more fully), and that is the time I devote to exercise.  I have learned through ill health and particularly being hospitalized twice with pancreatitis (a potentially deadly disorder) that my time at the gym exercising with my trainer has to be set aside and made a kind of sacred space as well.  I sometimes pray before or during my exercise time to sanctify that activity, although I am not always or consistently prayerful while working out at a gym.  I know that God has put people like my trainer Aaron Newman and my gym Catalyst Fitness in my life for the reason to keep me healthy in body as well as mind and soul.  For that, I am truly grateful.

Happy reading and exploring what acts bring you alive today and always!