2012 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 2,900 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 5 years to get that many views. I wish to thank all of you who have read some or all of my blog this year. I plan to keep on going into the next year. Please tell anyone you know who might be interested in my stories and/or posts on spirituality so they can join us.

Click here to see the complete report.

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The Word Became Vulnerable Flesh

creche1When St. John says that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, he is sharing a mystery so deep that we don’t know what to say. The mystery only deepens when we recall that the Word was with God “in the beginning” and without the Word, nothing was made. What is more, the Word was God. Which is to say, the Word is God for all time.

So why would the Word enter into the Creation that the Word shaped? Isn’t that a case of ultimate downward mobility? Later in his Gospel, John says that God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son who died on the cross. Suddenly, the Word who in the beginning was with God and was God is much more concrete and understandable. Except why would God and the Word love us so much that they would do that? Looking around at ourselves, there seems to be no accounting for taste.

What is so amazing is that God, who we might think is the ultimate in invulnerability, chooses to be vulnerable. God’s vulnerability is attested by the prophets who spoke of God’s distress over human waywardness and infidelity. But even then, “the boots tramped in battle” in Isaiah didn’t trample the Word who was with God and was God. But once the Word was born in the flesh of a human mother and laid in a manger, the Word had become just as vulnerable to trampling boots and automatic rifles as the children at Sandy Hook School in Newtown, Connecticut and the children slaughtered in Bethlehem by order of King Herod.

Here is where the mystery deepens so profoundly as to escape comprehension. It goes against what we think are our deepest instincts. We do everything to make ourselves less vulnerable from putting on plated armor, to hardening our feelings to buying weapons to defend us for the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” to quote Hamlet. If the Word without whom nothing was made that was made is willing to be so defenseless, than perhaps it isn’t really our deepest instinct to defend ourselves so aggressively after all.

Perhaps if we, like Mary, would treasure these things and ponder them deeply in our hearts, we will find within ourselves a Love created by God that loves so abundantly that it melts all our defenses and we no longer worry about accounting for God’s taste in so loving the world.

Celebrating the Prince of Peace

snowKatrinaCrossBW1This year’s rejoicing over the birth of the Christ Child is darkened by the recent murders at Sandy Hook School in Newton, CT. Lest I be accused of being a killjoy by keeping these two events together, let me remind you that Saint Matthew is just as much of a killjoy when he tells the story of the Holy Innocents who were killed in Bethlehem. Christmas has been darkened by human violence from the start.

When a tragedy like this strikes, it is only responsible to find ways to prevent it happen again, or at least lower the chances of it. The problem with prevention is our tendency to fall into a blame game. Some of it is absurd, such as blaming homosexuals or the banning of prayer from public schools, never mind the countless attacks on schoolchildren that predated that Supreme Court decision. Then there is the NRA. There is unquestionably a long overdue need to re-examine the ubiquity of firearms in our country but we have to dig deeper.

Which gets me to what we need to learn from the baby laid in a manger on a cold winter night. When this child grew up, he became the victim of collective violence in a tense city, the one blamed for that tension. And yet God raised this victim to prove his innocence. When Jesus encountered human problems, he did not blame people, he healed them. Even when he spoke strongly, as he did to the Pharisees, he was trying to heal them. When threatened with violence, Jesus told the disciple who drew a sword to put it back in its scabbard and stay there.

The killing of the children at Sandy Hook was violent, but the casting of blame is also violent. Hacking the Internet pages of the Westboro Baptist Church, egregious though its actions are, is only a further escalation of violence. The problem with the blame game, even when there is some truth to the charges, is that it always distracts us from other factors that are at least as important.  We all need to look at the logs in our own eyes, at the resentments within ourselves that fuel the violent tensions in our society.

The angels appearing to the shepherds sang of peace for all people. Not peace orchestrated by a violent empire, but peace emanating from the human heart that wants to protect not only Jesus from Herod, but all children from all who would hurt them, most of all, ourselves. By taking responsibility for ourselves, we make ourselves responsible to all. Then we can really celebrate Jesus as the Prince of Peace.

See also Two Ways of Gathering

The Need for New Hearts: an Advent Meditation

wreckedTrees1The traditional apocalyptic Advent themes of Death/Judgment/Heaven/Hell fuse in the recent mass shootings, especially the one at Sandy Hook School in Connecticut. A traumatic event like this at this time of year gives us occasion to wonder about the end of the world.

In a memorable poem, Robert Frost mused over whether the world will end in fire or ice. His first thought is that from what he has “tasted of desire,” he holds with “those who favor fire.” The violence of shooting deaths and terrorist attacks is filled with gunfire, suggesting that we should favor fire. René Girard has warned us that with the breakdown of the scapegoating mechanism as a way to hold a violent society together, we run the risk of apocalyptic violence spinning out of control. (See Violence and the Kingdom of God and Human See, Human Want.)

But Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar questions how fiery this violence really is. The opening rebuke of the people: “You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things” applies to all of the characters in the play. The ominous oracle of the beast without a heart provides the play’s central image. The heartless violence that drives the plot from civil war to assassination to civil war is all as cold as blocks and stones as well as senseless.

The violence of mass killings and terrorist attacks is frigid.  Frost says he thinks he knows enough of hate to know “that for destruction ice/Is also great/And would suffice.” The powerful understatement is all the more chilling.

There is another way the world could end in ice than cold, heartless violence. Jean-Pierre Dupuy, warns us that our modern economy creates victims through indifference. We literally do not know what we are doing. The final story in my book From Beyond to Here, “Buyer of Hearts,” explores an apocalyptic of ice and indifference. Danny Melton, a boy already bummed out because his father has left the family, suddenly begins to see ghosts floating around the school. He becomes all the more creeped out when he discovers that the people are still alive in the flesh, although “living and partly living,” in the words of T.S. Eliot, is more like Danny discovers that many of his classmates and teachers have sold their hearts for large sums of money. The selling and buying of heart gains more and more momentum as more and more people become hopelessly depressed over what is happening to their families and friends. My story, Dupuy’s warning, and Frost’s poem show us that God gives us humans the responsibility let God create new hearts within us to keep the world from ending “not with a bang, but a whimper.”

A leaky Basket: Judging Judgmentalism

guesthouse1A desert monastic said that contempt and reproaching another person in thought will prevent us from seeing the divine light. The monastic pioneers of the fourth and fifth centuries were constantly admonishing each other to stop judging each other judgmentally. This admonition sounds good until we realize that we always have good reasons for our own judgmental attitudes toward people we know or know about.

In one of my favorite stories about the desert monastics, one of their number had committed an unspecified sin and the other monastics gathered to pass judgment on him. The wisest and most respected elder was slow to come and when he arrived, he carried a leaky basket full of sand. The puzzled monastics asked him what he was doing and the elder replied: “My sins are falling out behind me where I cannot see them, and you would have me judge this brother.” End of trial.

This story warns us that judging another person entails losing awareness of our own sins. The other person’s sins distract us from our own. René Girard’s mimetic theory helps us zero in on an even deeper problem. Reflecting on the shortcomings of others hooks us into a rivalrous relationship with them. Our judgmentalism hooks us into the desires that lead the other to that sin. Perhaps this is why we are often warned that we judge most harshly those people who do what we secretly want to do or maybe actually secretly do them. As with every rivalrous relationship, judging another makes that person an obstacle to self-understanding and, as the elder quoted above warns us, also creates an obstacle between us and God.

It isn’t enough to just look the other way as the desert monastics often did. What is needed is an involvement with the other that is not judgmental but loving. In another story, an elder is called to join other monastics in raiding the cell of a monastic who was harboring a woman. When the elder entered the cell, he saw a hamper and sat on it while the others searched the cell without finding the woman. After the elder sent the other monastics away, he stood up, opened the hamper where the woman was hiding and said to his brother and the woman: “Take care for your soul.”

The convoluted chapters about punishment in Benedict’s Rule (analyzed in Tools for Peace) hint at mimetic traps in dealing with delinquent monastics. Finally, he throws up his hands and says that prayer is the greatest remedy of all. In prayer, we make ourselves the equal of whomever we are inclined to judge and we open ourselves up to God.

Prepare a Way for the Lord: an Advent Meditation

field1John the Baptist calls out to us with Isaiah’s words: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”  Isaiah here was referring to the return of God’s people to their rightful home from which they had been uprooted by the Babylonians. Even today, we live in exile, not living our lives in God as we ought. The call to repentance (metanoia) in John’s baptism means, literally, to turn our minds. This does mean just filling or minds with new books; it means turning our whole embodied selves in a new direction to see and live in a different way.

Isaiah prophecies a leveling process where the valleys are filled in, the mountains are brought low, and the crooked ways are straightened. That is, the obstacles within ourselves and within our culture that prevent God from coming to us must be removed. The image of leveling seems to suggest a social upheaval where the mighty are brought low and the lowly are raised up so that all are on the same level. This would be to overlook the real obstacle to God: our tendency to compare ourselves with one another without reference to God, preoccupied with being better than others or fretting that others are better than us. This preoccupation and the resentments they foster maintain the isolating barriers of valleys and mountains and block the way to God.

The repentance that Isaiah calls for is the renunciation of our rivalrous entanglement with others and allow for God’s leveling process that holds everybody in the same regard without exalting some or lowering others. Unfortunately, while God is smoothing out the way for us, we prefer to maintain the barriers that we think protect us. Opening a highway for God makes us vulnerable, not only to God but to all of God’s people. Take out the valleys and mountains and anybody could come deeply into our lives! Isaiah gives us fair warning by declaring that “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

Like all analogies, the analogy of smoothing out the landscape has its liabilities. Flat ground makes for boring scenery. Valleys and mountains make for beautiful scenery. God doesn’t destroy the landscapes God has made. That means, if we turn our embodied minds, we see that God’s leveling process is to rejoice in the valleys and mountains and twists of the road without rivalry or resentment.