What does it mean to be wise in today’s world?

The night before, someone had asked me if I thought that life was primarily comedy or primarily tragedy. I said comedy, without really knowing why. Then, as sometimes happens in the most surprising way, I found myself sitting at our Ministerium lunch the very next day, listening as Rabbi Roger Klein supported my sense that life is more comic than sad. Rabbi Klein was talking about wisdom. He had just finished speaking about Richard Sewell’s book, The Vision of Tragedy, in which Sewell asserts that wisdom is a recognition of the tragedies and problems of life, with a corresponding refusal to avoid them, and, most importantly, refusal to submit to them. Now he was speaking about Socrates. Socratic wisdom, he told us, has two main aspects. The first is humility. The second is the sense that life is comedy.

Not, the Rabbi assured us, comedy in a “laugh out loud” mode, but comedy as an ordering principal. He described tragedy and comedy as two species from the same genus. Comedy reflects a fundamentally ordered universe. Tragedy reflects a fundamentally disordered universe. Tragedy reflects the unacceptable contradictions of life, comedy the acceptable contradictions of life. I’ve been taking improv classes for awhile now, and I instinctively understood what he meant. When an improv actor steps out onto the stage, she doesn’t know what prompts she’ll be given or what her scene partners will say or do. She steps out prepared to create a scene from whatever comes her way. She has dedicated herself to the task of finding order in the raw materials of words and emotions and movements, and when we find improv funny, it is not only because of the incidental jokes and ridiculous situations that arise. The true joy that we take in improv arises from the fact that we’re watching order take form out of chaos, and the form that order takes is surprising, sometimes even shocking, but also deeply reassuring, because we human beings can do this. We can, through the simplest actions, reflect a fundamentally ordered universe.

Before talking about Sewell, Rabbi Klein led us through an investigation of David Brooks’s thoughts on wisdom, and Robert Nozick’s. He described Brooks’s point of view as primarily theoretical, given that Brooks is more concerned with thinking through what wisdom is than what it does. There’s a need for the cultivation of factual information and knowledge as we grow to be wise, but also a powerful need for experience. Knowledge gives us the capacity to create and evaluate, but the cultivation of wisdom takes time – it emerges from experience, and, unlike knowledge, it can’t be taught or transferred simply from one person to another. Differing from Brooks, Nozick is more interested in the practical aspects of wisdom. It comes about when we make meaning out of the practical truths that we encounter in the world, and through doing so change our perspective on life. Some of these practical truths are revealed when we attempt to achieve certain goals. We craft means of doing so, become aware of lurking dangers, and eventually come to accept unavoidable limitations. Through this we gain glimmers of self-knowledge. But also through it, if we’re truly wise, we detect, and even participate in, a current of joy. The wise person takes delight in wisdom itself and loves to share it, so that wisdom becomes an overflow of love.

All of these aspects of wisdom are found in scripture. Scripture speaks of the cultivation of the virtues as part of wisdom – do good deeds over and over again until they become your disposition, part of your temperament, inseparable from who you are. Scripture speaks of the transformation of loss, which is part of wisdom. The right response to loss, scripture tells us, is holiness – the redemption of the bad by turning it into something sacred. But most appealingly to me was the idea of comedy. The Bible, Rabbi Klein told us, is comedy, not tragedy. Again and again in both the Jewish and Christian scriptures, the contradictions of life are reconciled and a necessary order is reasserted, even in the face of violence and horror. The Sinai event is a comedic act, an act of creating a new order out of a devastatingly destructive old order. Resurrection is a comedic act, the act of reconciling the contradictions of life and death. In all cases, these acts of God are an overflowing of love, and in the grand comedy, creation itself flows out from God’s wisdom, and we are invited to learn and imitate it.

How do we form pilgrim communities?

When Greg Hitzhusen was a student at Yale Divinity School, he and a few others started an Outing Club, which took students out onto the campus for weekly meditations, and also took a spring break hiking trip every year. One day, while they were hiking in North Carolina, they came out onto Shining Rock at sunset and saw forested land spreading before them for miles. They had what Greg describes as a collective spiritual experience. This experience was the fruit of the group’s deep investment in their exploration of nature spirituality, and their acceptance of the hard work of being in the wild.

It was a high point of Greg’s many years spent exploring nature spirituality, during which he found many profound teachers. A few years before, he’s taken part in the Yitziah Jewish Outdoor Leadership Training Course, and become fascinated by the spiritual communities that can spring up in the midst of wilderness programs. He concentrated his academic research on similar outdoor environmental ministries, delving into how they thought about their work, both practically and theologically. He found that they all emphasized spiritual growth and renewal, often tying participants’ experiences to the wilderness stories of the Jewish and Christian traditions. His research made him conversant with a number of writers on creation spirituality, such as Stephen Kellert, Ursula Goodenough, and Bron Taylor.

We’d invited him to the Ministerium because we wanted to explore the idea of pilgrim communities, groups of people who come together for a set religious purpose, for a limited amount of time, and then disperse when that purpose is accomplished. Could these outdoor ministries serve as an example of such pilgrim communities, we wondered, and if so, what could we learn from them? Part of our concern was over their accessibility. Is there a way participate in pilgrim communities that are based around nature spirituality, even if one isn’t physically able to go on long hiking trips. or prevented from doing so by family or work responsibilities? Yes, Greg told us, all you need is a group that is intentional about going outside. He told us about the square foot exercise, in which one spends an hour simply meditating on a square foot of ground. Even such a simple thing can lead one to state of wonder and awe, since every small patch of ground is so amazingly various.

But the best practices for forming a pilgrim community in nature do require immersion in the natural world, which is best accomplished through multi-day excursions. Greg said that groups of twelve to fifteen people are best, since they allow for intimacy and variety without becoming unmanageable. A lot of very intentional planning needs to go into a successful trip. It’s a good idea to ground the trip in worship, maybe starting and ending with liturgies within a home trip. This, indeed, is one place where he nuanced our idea of pilgrim communities, since many of the groups that head out on these trips do so from a synagogue or church, a base community which supports them and which they benefit through their pilgrimage.

Once the group has started out on the trail, it’s important to engage them in what Greg calls a “portal” exercise. These are exercises that are meant to mark the liminality of beginnings, where pre-existing concerns and worries are named and then left behind. Through these exercises, a group begins to know itself as a group. Part of a group’s formation is its coming to understand the importance of mutual leadership. Sometimes groups of people assume that, regardless of any rhetoric around learning to trust one’s own leadership, there will, at the end of the day, always be someone there to bail them out. Experienced trail guides know that the only way to counter this assumption is to let group leaders fail, even if it means that they take people for miles in the wrong direction. Through such an experience, they come to understand that their leadership really belongs to them, and isn’t merely a hollow rhetorical device.

During these journeys, participants learn to value something other than peak-chasing. Sometimes the most profound moment doesn’t come on a mountain top, but while wading through weeds and bracken. And on all of these journeys, participants learn what their Jewish and Christian spiritual forerunners always knew – that the wilderness has the capacity of clearing away the distractions of our lives, and helping us notice the presence of God all around us.

Towards the end of his talk, Greg paraphrased Thomas Aquinas, who said that no one thing can adequately reflect the goodness of God, which is why God made all things. Often our faith communities become inward focused, and fall into thinking that they, somehow, know all there is to say about God. But creation is saying something more. Can we, as pilgrim communities, open the book of nature and learn from it?

How do we form pilgrim communities?

When Greg Hitzhusen was a student at Yale Divinity School, he and a few others started an Outing Club, which took students out onto the campus for weekly meditations, and also took a spring break hiking trip every year. One day, while they were hiking in North Carolina, they came out onto Shining Rock at sunset and saw forested land spreading before them for miles. They had what Greg describes as a collective spiritual experience. This experience was the fruit of the group’s deep investment in their exploration of nature spirituality, and their acceptance of the hard work of being in the wild.

It was a high point of Greg’s many years spent exploring nature spirituality, during which he found many profound teachers. A few years before, he’s taken part in the Yitziah Jewish Outdoor Leadership Training Course, and become fascinated by the spiritual communities that can spring up in the midst of wilderness programs. He concentrated his academic research on similar outdoor environmental ministries, delving into how they thought about their work, both practically and theologically. He found that they all emphasized spiritual growth and renewal, often tying participants’ experiences to the wilderness stories of the Jewish and Christian traditions. His research made him conversant with a number of writers on creation spirituality, such as Stephen Kellert, Ursula Goodenough, and Bron Taylor.

We’d invited him to the Ministerium because we wanted to explore the idea of pilgrim communities, groups of people who come together for a set religious purpose, for a limited amount of time, and then disperse when that purpose is accomplished. Could these outdoor ministries serve as an example of such pilgrim communities, we wondered, and if so, what could we learn from them? Part of our concern was over their accessibility. Is there a way participate in pilgrim communities that are based around nature spirituality, even if one isn’t physically able to go on long hiking trips. or prevented from doing so by family or work responsibilities? Yes, Greg told us, all you need is a group that is intentional about going outside. He told us about the square foot exercise, in which one spends an hour simply meditating on a square foot of ground. Even such a simple thing can lead one to state of wonder and awe, since every small patch of ground is so amazingly various.

But the best practices for forming a pilgrim community in nature do require immersion in the natural world, which is best accomplished through multi-day excursions. Greg said that groups of twelve to fifteen people are best, since they allow for intimacy and variety without becoming unmanageable. A lot of very intentional planning needs to go into a successful trip. It’s a good idea to ground the trip in worship, maybe starting and ending with liturgies within a home trip. This, indeed, is one place where he nuanced our idea of pilgrim communities, since many of the groups that head out on these trips do so from a synagogue or church, a base community which supports them and which they benefit through their pilgrimage.

Once the group has started out on the trail, it’s important to engage them in what Greg calls a “portal” exercise. These are exercises that are meant to mark the liminality of beginnings, where pre-existing concerns and worries are named and then left behind. Through these exercises, a group begins to know itself as a group. Part of a group’s formation is its coming to understand the importance of mutual leadership. Sometimes groups of people assume that, regardless of any rhetoric around learning to trust one’s own leadership, there will, at the end of the day, always be someone there to bail them out. Experienced trail guides know that the only way to counter this assumption is to let group leaders fail, even if it means that they take people for miles in the wrong direction. Through such an experience, they come to understand that their leadership really belongs to them, and isn’t merely a hollow rhetorical device.

During these journeys, participants learn to value something other than peak-chasing. Sometimes the most profound moment doesn’t come on a mountain top, but while wading through weeds and bracken. And on all of these journeys, participants learn what their Jewish and Christian spiritual forerunners always knew – that the wilderness has the capacity of clearing away the distractions of our lives, and helping us notice the presence of God all around us.

Towards the end of his talk, Greg paraphrased Thomas Aquinas, who said that no one thing can adequately reflect the goodness of God, which is why God made all things. Often our faith communities become inward focused, and fall into thinking that they, somehow, know all there is to say about God. But creation is saying something more. Can we, as pilgrim communities, open the book of nature and learn from it?

A Reflection on the Ministerium of Ideas First Year

What do our faith communities need to learn about in order to better serve the world around us?  Twenty-four clergy and lay leaders gathered in April of 2014 to answer this question and form a new group in Columbus that we dubbed “The Ministerium of Ideas.”  It’s the outgrowth of a community that had met for almost forty years, gathering on Friday mornings to listen to talks given by Ohio State University professors.  This group thought of itself as “the Church listening to the University,” and I started attending the talks in 2012, when I became Missioner for Campus Ministry.  I was attracted to the group for several reasons, the first being the graciousness of Bob Russell, who organized the talks.  Bob is in his eighties, long retired from being a Presbyterian campus minister, but still deeply curious and connected to the life of the campus.  He, and his efforts, reiterated to me one of the most important aspects of campus ministry these days.  The Western tradition of higher education came out of the church, and church and academy have long had a symbiotic relationship.  The academy provides the church with new knowledge and ways of thinking about a changing world.  The church spurs the academy to think ethically about new discoveries, and prophetically calls it to return to its original purpose of nurturing the human soul, educating the characters of young people, and making the benefits of its discoveries available to all.  Campus ministry acts as a bridge between the church and the academy, and the talks that Bob Russell organized for so many years showed me a way to strengthen that bridge and widen it’s reach.

The twenty-four clergy who gathered in April to answer that initial question were from a variety of mainline denominations, and from the Jewish and Buddhist faith traditions as well.   We ate lunch together and switched seats every fifteen minutes, using a World Cafe format for our discussion.  Our initial question generated many more questions.  How do we build diverse communities?  Are we failing at critical thinking?  What would it be like to participate in communities of creation instead of communities of consumption?   What are the armageddon type fears of the moment?  What will it be like to create bridges between physical & tech-based communities?  We asked many more questions, but of all the questions we asked, the one that touched me most deeply was, “how do we even define our current culture?”

It became clear to me that many of us were feeling bewildered by the rapid changes in the world around us, many of which are technology-induced.  Many of us felt unmoored, unable to make sense of a world where communities are virtual, religiosity is declining, consumerism seems to have become definitional to the human race, and only utilitarian values seem to matter.  And it occurred to us that if we felt this way, most of our congregants probably did as well.  The beauty of that question, “how do we even define our current culture,” was that we all suddenly realized that we weren’t alone.  The terror of that question was that it seemed so huge, something that would take years to answer, even as the culture transitioned beyond whatever temporary answers we could arrive at.

After the luncheon, I was joined by Bob Erickson and Jim Miner in putting together a schedule of talks that would begin to explore at least some of our questions.  Over this past academic year we heard about collaborations with the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and math), learned about institutions that have changed to meet the needs of their changing neighborhoods, explored the intersection of religion and the imagination, and investigated end of life issues.  We considered ways of cultivating a culture of reverence, asked whether it’s possible to live lives that aren’t centered around the economy, practiced reading the voice of our culture, and played with different models of religious community.  Each of these talks generated as many questions as they answered, but as our last speaker, Ben Norton, said, faith is a journey, not a set of certainties.  Over the course of this past year, we came to realize that listening to the voice of the university is a faithful act, one that expands our understanding and helps us address the urgent questions of our parishioners and neighbors.

What is it like to play with new models of religious community?

“Most people who reject faith don’t understand faith as a journey, but as a choice or affirmation.”  Ben Norton was speaking in the parish hall of Saint Stephen’s Episcopal Church, to a full crowd for our last Ministerium meeting of the academic year.  Ben is a pioneer minister from England, who was visiting the U.S. at the invitation of the Diocese of Southern Ohio to talk about the Fresh Expressions movement and everything that the Church of England has learned from exploring new ways of being church in the last ten years.  He was ordained with the first class of pioneer ministers, so his story is the movement’s story.

Fresh Expressions began with a 2004 report that posited that parish churches alone are no longer able to meet the needs of the highly mobile society of today, and that we need a range of expressions of church to engage with the variety of networks in our communities.  The report advocated for a “mixed economy” of traditional parish churches and new network churches in active partnership across a wide geographical area.  Ben’s work has been creating and sustaining these new network churches, which have commonly come to be called “fresh expressions.”  He’s established Christian communities that meet in bars and homes, creative communities that enact live-action Advent Calendars in abandoned beach huts, and he’s expanded the reach of his ministry to the army, where he serves as a reservist chaplain.  Throughout it all, he’s spent a great deal of time listening to the communities that he works in, assessing their needs and finding ways to collaborate with others to meet those needs.

The American church hasn’t felt the strictures of decline as keenly as the Church of England has, so we’re just beginning our own process of fostering mixed economies.  Yet everyone feels the pressures of societal changes, and it was out of a desire to understand and respond to these changes that we formed the Ministerium.  So Ben was the perfect speaker to close our first year of thinking together and talking together.  How do we help people reimagine faith as a journey, rather than as a set of choices?  If communities are where we learn the lessons of faith, how do foster communities that help their members reflect on those lessons and go out to teach them to others?  In a world of many choices, how do we help people recognize the power of choice and negotiate its dangers and anxieties?  In a society that prefers activity to contemplation and rewards accomplishment and not relationship, how do we convince people to take time for community?  How do we share expertise within faith community structures that are traditionally hierarchical?

At our first Ministerium meeting, we sat together and created a list of very similar questions.  We’ve now spent a year examining some of them, and it can come as no surprise that they’ve generated more questions in their wake.  The questions that loom over us are huge, but as Ben pointed out, we understand them best within community, and within the journey of community we find some, if not all, of the answers we need.  “We need to say, ‘we are the changed world,’” Ben told us, “not, ‘we want to change the world.’”  The world we want, and the understanding we seek, is something that we enact together while journeying together.  Thank you for joining us for this journey, and stay with us next year, as we ask many more questions, and find at least a few answers.

How can we learn to “read” the voice of our culture?

A hand reaches into thin air and seems to grab and hold an invisible object.  A bare foot presses itself to the floor.  The camera pans across a woman and a girl sitting on a sofa.  Then it centers on a man, sitting on a chair in his living room, holding his hands up as if he’s driving.  He’s smiling, as are the woman and girl on the sofa.  He turns his head and looks at the girl’s, then turns again to face in front of him, and his eyes go wide, his smile falls into a grimace of fear.  The fear is on the faces of the woman and girl as well.  They get up from the sofa and go to him, the girl wrapping her arms around his middle, the woman making a strap of her arms from his shoulder to his waist.  The man jerks forward and kicks over the coffee table, sending a bowl of confetti flying, and the pieces of confetti glimmer like shattered glass.  The words “embrace life, always wear your seatbelt” appear on the screen.

This is a public service announcement from Sussex Safer Roads, in the UK.  James Fredal, Associate Professor of English at OSU, showed it to the Ministerium in March as he led us in examining the question of how we can learn to “read” the voice of our culture.  Jim specializes in rhetoric, and teaches graduate students to examine everything from television commercials to ancient texts.  He asked us to consider some contextual questions.  Can we tell, from a piece of rhetoric, who it’s meant to address.  In the case of the Embrace Life PSA, we were able to identify that its model audience is white, male, married, and middle class.  What do we know about the time and place in which a piece of rhetoric was produced?  For the PSA, this was fairly easy, but it gets much harder when one considers historical texts, or texts that speak into a deeply foreign culture.  Why was the piece of rhetoric produced, what need was it meant to speak to?  When we considered the Embrace Life PSA, we were left wondering if there was a rash of automobile deaths among middle aged men in Sussex.  What genre does the piece of rhetoric belong to?  A PSA is a very specific genre, one that’s created by government or public interest groups and meant to effect large cultural change.  All of these things help to define the purpose of a piece of rhetoric, the action that the people who produced it want (or wanted) it’s audience to take.

Like everything else in our society, our rhetoric is changing as the tools for producing it change.  A video, like the Embrace Life PSA, doesn’t lend itself to an abstract reading.  It’s images are specific.  Jim pointed out that describing the video in text, like I did at the start of this essay, could leave us with a more generalized sense of its meaning.  I didn’t say that the man in the PSA was white, that he was clean shaven and wearing a nice shirt, that his living room had wallpaper and comfortable looking furniture – all of the cues that would immediately inform someone who was watching it that it was speaking to a white, middle-class audience.  Images are often more powerful than words, but their very specificity tends to narrow their focus.  And this changes our understanding of what makes for successful rhetoric, which has often followed a pattern of starting specific, going broad, and then returning to specificities.  If everything in a video is specific, it’s hard to generalize about the state of the world.  A young, unmarried, poor man watching that PSA might have walked away thinking that there wasn’t any great reason for him to wear a seatbelt, and that he could wait until he had some money and was married with children.

At the end of Jim’s talk, we turned to a passage from Jeremiah 7.     This made many of us feel that we were on firmer ground, because it was very like the historical/contextual Biblical criticism that we were trained in while in seminary.  None of us were Jeremiah’s original audience, however, and in a very real way, Jeremiah’s rhetoric wasn’t meant for us, but for the people of Judah.  Jim told us that for every piece of rhetoric there is a second persona, whom the rhetoric is addressing directly, and a third persona, all of those who are left out of the direct address.  We are third personas when it comes to Jeremiah’s rant at the gates of the temple.  Which doesn’t mean that it can’t speak to us, only that it speaks to us in a different way, and our response to it will serve a different purpose.

Most of us, and most of the people we serve, live within a greater onslaught of rhetoric than any other people in human history.  Messages are flying around us all the time, and they’re effecting us whether we want them to or not.  Learning to critique these messages can help us to make decisions about their value to us, can help us resist those messages that run counter to our deepest beliefs, and can help us advocate for those who are being negatively effected by the rhetorical thrust of our culture.  Jim told us that he believes that rhetorical analysis is best done in groups, since groups are diverse enough to allow us to see each other’s blind spots and raise the questions that any one of us might not think to ask.  Is there a place in our faith communities for this kind of rhetorical analyses?  Will it help us to emulate Jeremiah and become prophetic voices in our culture?

How Do We Live in a Way that Isn’t Arranged Around the Economy?

We treat the economy as if it were God.  We try to appease it, worry that it will smite us, and don’t really understand it.  We’ve built our ethical systems around it.  This became abundantly clear to Methodist Theological School of Ohio professor Yvonne Zimmerman when she was studying the movement to end human trafficking.  She noticed that many of the advocacy organizations and nonprofits that comprise this movement use an economic argument to oppose contemporary slavery.  People who don’t receive an income can’t be consumers, the rhetoric goes, and this is bad for all of us, since being a consumer helps the economy.  But she began to notice that the rhetoric sometimes goes even further, and equates consumerism with freedom.  And she began to notice other voices in American culture equating consumerism with the freedom to live a full and meaningful life.

If consumerism becomes a human ideal, then we learn to judge our ethical choices in terms of that ideal.  We know we are acting rightly when we act as good consumers, and we expect these actions to make us happier and make the world better.  For religious people this presents an obvious problem.  To deify the market is to turn it into an idol, and to align all of our behaviors so that they serve the market is to worship that idol and blindly act according to its will.    Yvonne wasn’t making an argument against capitalism, or saying that the economy is unimportant.  But she was inviting us to step back from it, to critique the market and its call to consumerism, and to understand that the economy, while neutral in itself, is often used to dominate and oppress people.

Since we live in a country that is often dominated by economic concerns, it sometimes becomes hard for us to use any language but that of the market.  Hence the reliance on consumerist rhetoric by anti-human trafficking groups.  Where, Yvonne wondered, could we find a different language for talking about the purpose of human life, and a different set of ethical standards for understanding whether that purpose is good.  She suggested three voices we might want to pay attention to.  The first voice is Tex Sample, Professor Emeritus at St. Paul School of Theology, who critiques power, self-interest, and the notion of self in our society.  The second voice is Katie Cannon, who discusses in her book Black Womanist Ethics how the goal of slaves and African-Americans living in the Jim Crow south was often survival, rather than success, and how that changed their view of what constitutes an ethical life.  The third voice belongs to David Hilfiker, who lays out a Biblical conception of the value of work.

We were meeting at the Wexner Student Center, the home of OSU Hillel.  When Yvonne asked for our help in critiquing the market and articulating ethical practices that could reorientate us away from the economy and towards God, our host, Rabbi Feivel Strauss, spoke very eloquently about the Sabbath as a time set aside from consumerism, when one neither sells nor buys, neither works nor relies on the work of others.  We were all challenged by Katie Cannon’s work, since she suggests that the centers of power are not the source for moral alternatives, and true moral alternatives often look so alternative that we might not even recognize them as being moral.  We talked about the idea that quiet grace or invisible dignity could be moral precepts that one might live one’s life by, and the difficulties that idealistic, passionate people who want to change society have in accepting these seemingly passive ethics.  We also talked about the value of work, and whether it’s possible to think of that value in non-economic terms.  We didn’t come close to answering the question of how we can live in ways that aren’t arranged around the economy.  It’s too big a question for a single luncheon.  But by beginning the discussion, we began the search for answers, knowing that those answers can’t be arrived at through discussion, but by the ways in which we choose to live our lives.

How Can We Cultivate a Culture of Reverence?

“Im not interested in longing to live in a world in which I already live.”  Brad Modlin was reading from Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, a book about the color blue.  The Ministerium of Ideas was meeting to examine the question of how we can cultivate a culture of reverence, and Brad was sharing an omnium-gatherum of readings that he’s collected during his studies as a poet and a teacher of literature.  He divided these readings into five sections, and talked to us about Reverence through Rituals, the Reverence of Dropping Silent, Reverence as/by Staring, Reverence as Pause, and Reverence as Real Presence.  Most of the readings were drawn from contemporary poetry, and for many of us this was part of the excitement – to discover the gathered wisdom of a world of artists who are living now and experiencing the same fractured world that we experience.

To talk about ritual, Brad read Marie Howe’s poem, “What the Living Do.”  She wrote it for her dead brother, and Brad’s point was that the reverence of ritual shows up in everyday life, in the wonder at just being alive, even when grocery store bags break and the sink gets clogged up.  The poem conveys the idea that cultivating reverence is not about looking for exceptional moments, but discovering the beauty of the ordinary.

And that beauty can be wonderfully discovered when we fall silent.  Brad showed us a video of Neil Hilborn performing his spoken word piece, “OCD.”  Hilborn suffers from the eponymous condition, and the piece is a spillage of words, starting at a heightened level of intensity and becoming more intense.  But it’s true power comes at the end, when Hilborn falls silent.  All the clutter and confusion of his mind and words is allowed, for a moment, to lapse into quiet, and I couldn’t help thinking of the clutter and confusion of my own life, and those moments of allowed silence that create a sense of reverence.

Brad showed us a video of Marina Abramovic’s amazing performance art piece, “The Artist is Present.”  Abramovic performed the piece at MOMA, and it consisted of nothing more than her sitting, in a red dress, at a table.  When audience members sat down opposite her, she made eye contact with them for as long as they wanted.  Some people would sit for only a few seconds.  Others for long periods of time.  Some would weep.  The piece emphasized the power of the human gaze, but also the paucity of looking in our lives.  And this was Brad’s point, that reverence can be cultivated simply by gifting each other, and the world around us, with our attention.

So what stops us?  Perhaps its the fact that we fall too easily under the sway of what Brad called kronos, an understanding of time as sequential and demanding.  Kronos is the root of the word “chronology,” and holds within it the idea that time is fleeting, and that we must use it to accomplish all that we can before we die.  Brad contrasted this to kairos, which he described as God’s time, time that is eternal and secure, and that we don’t need to feel anxious about.  To engage in the rituals of ordinary life, to fall silent, to look and truly see, we need to let go of chronic anxiety and cultivate kairos.

And we need to understand that the world is full of what Brad (and countless Catholic theologians) called “real presence.”  To illustrate this, he showed us Michael Craig-Martin’s piece, “An Oak Tree.”  The piece consisted of nothing more than a water glass on a shelf, and a dialog between Craig-Martin and an unknown interlocutor, in which Craig-Martin makes the case for the water being an oak tree, in the same way that bread is seen to be the real presence within the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation.  “An Oak Tree” is an examination of belief.  We need this belief to give meaning to the mechanics of ritual, but, Craig-Martin asserts, it is also only through belief that we can give meaning to art, and life.  Experiencing reverence in the ordinary, in ordinary silences and ordinary seeing, seems to require the mediation of belief.  We believe that we will see something that contains more meaning than the ordinary should allow.

Which brings us back to Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, and her assertion that all the things we long for are already present here, if we could simply look and see them.  They’re present within the color blue, which is Nelson’s great obsession.  They’re also present within moments of realized justice, and in classes that we take about Ohio trees, and when we sit beside people who are dying, and when we witness the power of a sunset.  There is a great and constant transubstantiation going on, brought about by our silences, our looking, and our reverence.

Why is it so hard to help people die?

“If the goal of medicine is to prevent death, then the entire enterprise is a complete and utter failure.”  Dr. Robert Taylor of the Ohio State Medical Center was speaking to us at the Newman Center on a Thursday in early December.  We had gathered to examine the question of why it’s so hard to help people die in America.  Dr. Taylor has spent his career examining the ethics and spirituality of palliative care, and has concluded that the goal of medicine isn’t to prevent death, but to relieve suffering.  He and his colleagues are re-thinking the ethical paradigm for providing medical care to the elderly in an aging world, and he graciously shared their discoveries with us.

People who are seeking a good death help their families prepare for their absence.  One of the frequent questions that patients ask Dr. Taylor is, “how much time do I have?”  In some cases, they are really asking him to try to extend their time on earth.  But in most cases they’re thinking through all of the things they’ll need to do to arrive at a good death.  One of the most important aspects of a good death is called “completion.”  It means a chance to thank those who have been important in our lives, to forgive those who have hurt us, to express love, and to ask for absolution.  People who are seeking a complete end to their lives are willing, in general, to cede medical decisions to their loved ones, because they care more about their loved ones’ well-being than their own autonomy.  Seeking completion is a way of helping those loved ones prepare for the dying person’s absence.

Ceding one’s autonomy can be very counter-cultural, especially among white middle-class people.  Dr. Taylor pointed out that being dependent on others is often the worst thing that white middle-class people can imagine.  Which made me realize that even a healthy person in mid-life, such as myself, can begin preparing for a good death by surrendering my self-reliance daily.  As I listened to Dr. Taylor, and thought about my own eventual death, I realized that I want it to be fearless.  I don’t want to cling to life because I think that I can somehow control it.  I also don’t want to fear death because of a sense that too many things have been left undone.  A good death, it seems to me, is a reflection of a good life.

Hospice is a unique cultural institution, one of the only American institutions that explicitly bless death in a culture that is youth-obsessed and death adverse.  Our faith-communities can sometimes do this, but with less consistency and intentionality.  What if we were to adopt the questions of hospice and ask them of our members?  Dr. Taylor gave us four questions to ask.  What is most important to you?  What gives your life meaning?  What is your greatest fear?  What is your greatest support?  These questions can be asked of anyone, at any time.  They are questions that help us understand our lives as we live them.  And because of that, they are questions that can help us understand, and accept, our deaths.

How Can Our Faith Communities Grow in Creativity and Imagination?

To sit with Roger Klein is to sit with a man of eloquence, of erudition, and to sit with a very good teacher, a teacher who, when he asks you a question, does so because he expects to learn something from you.  We sat with him at the Newman Center last Thursday as he led us in an exploration of creativity and imagination, bringing us into conversation with philosophers and poets and novelists.  We considered how the imagination puts us in contact with our Creator, and helps us shape meaning, sometimes prophetic meaning, from our daily lives.

William Carlos Williams wrote “It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day from lack of what is found there.”  Part of what is found there, Roger told us, is a deep attention to relationships.  We considered the great power of interpersonal relationships as disclosed in Emily Dickinson’s poetry, and the immense tragedy of political relationships, which we examined through an excerpt from Avi Shavit’s My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel.  The excerpt told of how Shmarya Gutman, when watching the exodus of Palestinians from Lydda, understood that these Arab refugees were re-enacting the Babylonian Exile.  Shavit writes: “As the military governor watches the faces of the people marching into exile, he wonders if there is a Jeremiah among them to lament their calamity and disgrace.  Suddenly he feels an urge to join the marching people and to be their Jeremiah.  For one long moment, he who is their Nebuchadnezzar wishes to be their Jeremiah.”   This particularly struck me, the way in which we can see our own story in other people’s lives, and feel the deep empathy that this reading allows, even as we struggle against them.

I often despair over the fact that religious stories are disappearing from our culture’s consciousness – that people sometimes use religious narratives and images without knowing that they are religious, or understanding the deeper meanings that they convey.  Rabbi Klein’s talk helped me to set this despair aside.  Maybe it’s not so important that other people understand our stories.  Maybe it’s important for us to use our stories to understand, and empathize with, other people. Will using our creativity in this way help us to act with more compassion towards those who are different from us?  Will it help us to let go of the pride and fear that divides us?  I left the lunch without having an answer, but feeling some of the hope expressed in the question.