Sunday, January 25, 2009

Town Folk of the Mind--Part II

This posting will make more sense if you read the previous one, "Town Folk of the Mind--Part I" first.

And the paralytic? Who is he among the town folk of the mind? In the story, he is an interesting figure--unknown but known. We are given only one fact about him: he is unable to walk unaided. We are given two hints. First, either he is a man who inspires friends or relatives to go to great lengths to help him, or his carriers are the kind of people who pop up in the wake of fire, famine, flood and earthquake to rescue their fellow human beings for no apparent reason other than generous kindness. Secondly, either he is a sinner, or Jesus is working from the assumption popular at the time that any misfortune, but particularly sickness, is God's retaliation for sin. (Jesus contradicts this assumption elsewhere. He was patient enough to work within the given frameworks of his hearers and only gradually to expand them or shatter and rebuild them.)

Among the town folk of the mind, the paralytic stands out as radical dependence in radical need. The dependence in this case is on others. The paralytic is utterly unable to act in his own behalf. The need, though, is for Jesus. No one else can heal his paralysis. No one else can forgive his sin. In other words, no one else can set him free from all that constrains him within the small circle of his own helplessness. Perhaps he knows that himself. Perhaps only his friends put their trust in this new Healer. It doesn't really matter: need is need, whatever the motive that plants us at last at the feet of the One who can meet it.

Perhaps the need is what causes the crowd to ignore him. The "thoughts" or "passions" that drive us wear a mask of self-sufficiency. That is part of the ruse they use to snare us: “You can get what you want if you get out there and fight for it.” They are intolerant of powerlessness. Greed grabs more than its share; lust dehumanizes both its agent and its object into fodder for sheer abusive use; anger arises in response to the frustration of powerlessness. Vainglory is embarrassed by any manifestation of helplessness: it makes us look so bad when compared with the achievers around us! Pride simply refuses to accept powerlessness: it can do all things unless thwarted by the perversity of others who will not give in to us. These "thoughts" and their companions don't want to see or know that part of us which cries out to God, "O God, come to my assistance! O Lord, make haste to help me!" Only weaklings show that kind of neediness. The strong, the beautiful and the good do for themselves.

In his helplessness, the paralytic has another strike against him. He is quite unable to produce any tangible fruits through his labor because he is unable to labor. That part of us that seeks God out of deep need is not, apparently, productive. That in itself is a capital sin in a techno-consumer culture. The demon of productivity is not listed per se among the “thoughts” identified by Evagrius Ponticus and the other desert sages because productivity was not one of their goals. They worked at weaving mats and baskets out of local reeds, but they did so both to earn their own living and to earn money to give to the poor. They were useful, but they were not driven by the need to be useful as we so often are. There may well have been some among their number who surreptitiously compared his or her basket output with that of the neighbors to satisfy the competitive spirit of pride, but I haven’t come across their stories in the desert literature as yet. Perhaps enslavement to usefulness does belong to pride, but it seems to be ruled by a desire to be accepted as often as it is by a desire to win the race to achieve the most toys or the biggest cheese. It is certainly a major roadblock on the road toward God. No one can measure the “accomplishments” of prayer, particularly the prayer that asks for nothing but deeper communion with Christ. As spiritual writers often lament, it is perceived as a useless waste of time. “Get out there, get busy, contribute!” scream the voices in our head. As contemplative nuns, we are often forced to wrestle at least inwardly with the judgment, implied or sometimes even stated, that we are nothing but parasites wasting God’s gifts by shutting ourselves up in our cloister and spending too much time in prayer. Paralytics in a society where success is defined by product, men and women who seek God in their need for that sometimes unnamed “more” and who contribute nothing to the world but love poured out in prayer, in the cloister or in the marketplace, will get many a cold shoulder from the crowd, sometimes even the crowd gathered around Jesus’ door.

Yet need our paralytic. We need our powerlessness. We need the recognition that only one is God, and we are not the one. Otherwise, we are apt to spend our whole lives turning our back on the radical Love that can heal us and free us--if only we will allow others, and even that Love itself, to carry us up on that roof and lower us down at the feet of Christ, who shows an uncanny knack for honoring what we despise in ourselves and others by touching our weaknesses, speaking to them, explaining them, pardoning them, and converting them into strengths.

To be continued: Part III—The Pallet Carriers

©2009 Abbey of St. Walburga

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Town Folk of the Mind--Part I

In the story of the paralytic with the ingenious friends (Mark 2:1-12), our attention usually goes immediately to the clever determination that leads the men carrying the paralytic to lower him into Jesus’ presence through the roof. Their faith, says Mark, prompts Jesus first to forgive the paralyzed man his sins, to the consternation of the scribes, and then to heal him.
However, before the action really begins, the evangelist sets up the necessity for drastic action by saying “they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd” (Mark 2:4). Think for a minute about the scene. Having discovered that Jesus was home in Capernaum, “So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them” (Mark 2:2). You can imagine people jostling one another for a better spot so they could hear. A few well-placed elbows and a little toe-stomping could probably get a determined person to the front. Some of the crowd may have brought their own sick to be healed. Others were no doubt looking for something exciting, some action or some word that would liven up their day-to-day existence and give them something new to gossip about. This rabbi was new on the scene, after all, and had been known to work wonders already. Whatever their motives, they were apparently not ready to make way for a paralyzed man carried by four other men. Although Capernaum seems to have been a good-sized place that drew business from the surrounding area, chances are that a lot of people gathered knew one another, but they don’t seem to have been exhibiting much neighborliness.

Why not? What sort of people would ignore and even bar the road to such obvious need? Were they so preoccupied with hearing and seeing for themselves, so blinded by their own determination to get close, so hungry themselves that they could not make space for a man whose need for Jesus was so much greater than their own? Evidently so.

This troublesome little scene stuck in my mind like a burr when I heard it read in church lately. In the context of the gospel, the story is neither parable nor allegory, but it forced my thoughts toward the town folk of my own mind. Are there in me preoccupations, plans, purposes that stand in the way of my own need to seek and find Christ in the busy marketplace of my days? Of course there are. Usually, they look like harmless squiggles in my planner, but the ancient monastic tradition of the early Christian desert prods me into recognition that some of them are more than squiggles and far from harmless. Those unforgettable voices of a wisdom that knew all too well the foibles of the human spirit spoke plainly about the “thoughts” that drive us. Conventions of translation used to call those “thoughts” the “passions”, but once “passion” was generally co-opted by the literature of sexual morality, it lost the real flavor of what the desert fathers and mothers were talking about. They meant the inner forces that invaded the peaceful harmony of mind, heart, spirit, and body and drove those powerful faculties into a focused preoccupation that shut out prayer, charity, wisdom and balance in order to concentrate all energy on whatever “thoughts” consumed and drove the hapless human taken up with them. The desert teachers eventually named them gluttony, lust, avarice, acedia (a sort of restless, unfocussed dissatisfaction that guts initiative and perseverance in anything worthwhile), anger, despondency, vainglory and pride. The list is familiar. These are not passing whims but the gathered energy of imagination and body toward the fulfillment of some need perceived as urgent, with the collaboration of a mind happy to provide all sorts of convincing rationalizations.

Wait a minute! We began by considering the mindset of people so eager to hear and see Jesus that they block the way of a paralytic carried on a pallet. Surely these “thoughts”—which, in fact, do become passions—do not apply to the mind in quest of Christ? Of course they do. I won’t speak for you, but I am perfectly capable of setting up an imaginary Christ sketched from the gospel but cleverly twisted by my own thought processes to represent the fulfillment of all the desires of the almighty Me. The crowd in Capernaum was likely as driven by curiosity, hope of break from their normal routine, avidity for wonders, undefined desire for something more, competition with the others to get the best place, and anger when someone else got there first as they were by pure religious impulse. Most of us are sometimes, aren’t we? The town folk of my own mind don’t differ much from the town folk of Capernaum or of any crowd collected to hear and see any celebrity.

To be continued...Part II: The Paralytic

©2009 Abbey of St. Walburga

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Evening Toll

After a day that was far too busy....
I long for stiller places than the mind
where hubbub’s rowdy children will not sleep.
The day recites its deeds, too many marked “undone”,
too many labeled, “Urgent! Will not keep!”

Night’s rest has fled the clamor, fingers stuffed
into her ears, with chatter at her heels,
a pack of puppies nipping her to flight,
a ceaseless rough-and-tumble. Nightfall feels

like battlefield where neither army won,
but none can find a way to halt the fray
no one remembers starting. Why the hours
were slain and scattered, fruitless, none can say.

But more than hours are dead as day dies down.
Among the wasted victims, none left whole,
lies one who should have lived. Beside the ash
of fires burned out, I kneel and mourn my soul.

Genevieve Glen, OSB
©2009 Abbey of St. Walburga

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Epiphany 2009: A Star in the Clouds

The piece I started for this week's posting turned out to be too long for a blog and too hard to shorten without losing the sense, so here is just a short sketch of a thought for the feast of the Epiphany (celebrated in the US Roman Catholic liturgical calendar on the Sunday nearest January 6, rather than on the traditional January 6 date).

A day or two ago, the news on the web carried a dramatic photo of heavy brown clouds billowing above the ground in the wake of an Israeli airstrike on Gaza. It brought back memories. When I was a child, the mushroom cloud from the first hydrogen bomb tests appeared in Life Magazine (yes, I'm that old). My mother hid that issue from me because she thought it would frighten me. Why, I'm not sure. I wouldn't have understood the implications, although I already knew about the A-bomb. We had regular air-raid drills at school. What I remember from them is learning to fear a flash of white soundless light (by the time you heard the explosion, it would be too late to run); filing out of the classroom and crouching down along the wall with my face hidden in my knees and my sweater pulled up over hands and neck to protect them from burns. It seems a pitiful gesture now, to use a sweater to shield yourself from an A-bomb. I think the drills did give me nightmares, so perhaps that was why my mother hid that issue of Life. The web photo reminded me of the terror a bright light and a mushroom cloud could stir up in a small child.

I wondered about the children of Gaza. I wondered about the children of Afghanistan. I wondered about the children of Iran. They make a discomforting picture in the background as we sing Christmas carols about the newborn Prince of Peace.

Iran, the former Persia, may in fact have been the home from which the three Magi of the Epiphany story (Matthew 2) set out to follow a bright light in the sky to faraway Bethlehem in Judea. Very little is known about them or their journey. Imagination and scholarship have filled in lots of details: they may have been astrologers, they may have been descendants of the Jews exiled to Babylon "in the East" centuries before, they may therefore have know of Balaam's from the Book of Numbers: "I see him [the deliverer], though not now; I behold him, though not near: A star shall advance from Jacob..." (Numbers 24:17), there may have been three of them because they carried three gifts, they may have been kings, they may have been named Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar, one of them may have been black...a lot of "may have's", almost no known facts.

Surely they travelled through their fair share of clouds--dust storms, thunderclouds, even snow clouds in high passes, clouds of dust raised by fast bands of brigands in search of unprotected travellers, clouds of flies feasting on bodies left on the road by thieves or local wars. A strong Roman Empire ensured a certain amount of peace in the territories within its reach, but the legions probably couldn't suppress local blood feuds, and probably didn't try. The world was not a prettier place then than it is now, but it couldn't broadcast its violence and tragedies live across the world as they happened, so we don't have much of a record to go by. The three travellers must have weathered discomfort and danger as made their way "from the East" to that little Palestinian town.

Why did they do it? No one really knows. Sermons and hymns have assumed they came to worship at the crib of the Savior, Son of God and Son of Mary. Their three gifts--gold, frankincense and myrrh--were all things prescribed for worship in the Jerusalem Temple. (It was later Christian imagination that attached to them allusions to Christ's kingship, divinity and passion.) But the Magi did not come from Jerusalem. And they did not come to worship, according to Matthew's gospel. They came to pay homage to the newborn King of the Jews. Homage is the honor due a ruler. Why would they want to honor an infant king of a small province of the great Roman Empire? The gospel does not say.

Perhaps the gift they give us is their perseverance. They saw a star. They believed it pointed to the newborn King of the Jews. They felt they must take the long road to Israel in its wake, no doubt at great cost to themselves in terms of time, effort and money. Perhaps they themselves didn't know why. Sometimes we chase unlikely goals simply because we believe we must. They may have met obstacles that frightened them. They may have met landscapes, beasts and men who threatened them. They may have grown weary and discouraged. They may, sometimes, have lost sight of the star when the clouds were heavy. But they never turned back. They found the child, they paid their homage, they gave their gifts--and then they went home. And that's all we really know about them: they followed their vision, they gave what they had to give, and then they left. If they were hoping to get something out of that for themselves, we don't know what it was or whether they found it. All we know is: they followed, they gave, they left and then disappeared from history.

There is something to ponder in their stubborn fidelity to the star and its promise, even when the clouds are heavy, blinding and menacing. Even when they are great clouds of brown dust rising over a ruined town, or mushroom clouds threatening to rise over a ruined world. Even when everything in us wants to turn back and run for the safety of home. Even then, especially then: remember the Magi.

©2009 Abbey of St. Walburga
Two disclaimers are in order here:
About chronology: A child's memories are not historical records, obviously. We did have air raid drills in school during the Korean War because we lived on the San Francisco Peninsula, not far from the Naval Air Station at Alameda. There was some fear, apparently, that the air station might attract enemy bombing. As I look back, I can't imagine anyone really expected North Korea to drop an atomic bomb on California because the only country that had shown itself able and willing to commit that atrocity was the United States. However, I do remember that the teachers instructed us in how to recognize and take shelter from an atomic bomb, or A-bomb as we called them then. (The more I think about it, the more I wonder that adults who must have known the cataclysmic effects of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki could possibly have dreamed that we could do anything to protect ourselves in a small school a few miles away from a possible target. That makes me think that, whatever I think was said, the air raid drills must have been based on fears of some lesser kind of bombs.) The other point in which I am not clear and did not have time to research is whether the first pictures of hydrogen bomb tests on the Pacific atolls appeared before, during or after the Korean War. The point really is the memeory, not the history.
About the Magi: This reflection is drawn from the story of the Magi as it is told in Matthew 2, without reference to any kind of biblical scholarship that offers a much more sophisticated picture of the story's significance. The Magi are in fact presented as representatives of the Gentile nations streaming to Jerusalem (Bethelehem was near enough) to pay homage to God after the restoration of the exiled people of God to a Jerusalem restored to splendor. See, for example, Isaiah 61 and Psalm 72, whose promises the Magi from the East seem to fulfill. They are therefore intentional characters in the messianic drama of promise and fulfillment on which the gospel story is based. But they are no less mysterious figures of human interest for all that!