Monday, January 26, 2015

The Unforgiven

My grandfather was said to have been larger than life. He was a local celebrity, tavern owner, opera singer, father of ten and obsessive extrovert.  He was a hard drinking, opinionated, Victorian/Edwardian-era pater familias.  He ruled his home and business absolutely. He played his many children off each other, clearly favoring his namesake over others. Like most fathers of his time, Bill Ziegler was not afraid to use corporal punishment. I’m pretty sure he wasn't afraid of anything.

He taught my mother to play piano, not by practicing scales or notes or etudes or however people normally learn to play but by singing a song for her and telling her she had to be able to play it when he returned. Most of the time she did. If she failed, well….

Until recently, I considered myself to be an expert in forgiveness. Looking back over my life, I have been able to forgive people who have wronged me, even people who have wronged my own children. Sighs of relief all around. But I cannot forgive my grandfather.

I have held bitterness and disapproval in my heart. He was not someone I would admire. But, worse than that, because he was so much “larger than life” he infected lives around him, my mother’s life, to be sure, and that of her sisters and brothers. He has even affected my life and that of my siblings, and cousins.

We all caught a bit of the taint of Bill Ziegler. We all thought we were a bit grander than we were, a bit more in demand; we held our opinions up as models for everyone; we delighted in our own righteous anger. This is how we thought we were supposed to be. Over the years, we all, thank God, moderated our habits, but we’d have all been a lot happier if we hadn't had his glowering ghost hanging over us. 

In 1937, at the age of 65, my grandfather died in an automobile accident. Finding the old obituary last year, I noted that no mention was made of alcohol as a cause, but he and a friend had been at an annual meeting of tavern owners. I know my grandfather. He was drunk. He left a wife and ten children, the youngest of whom was still in his teens. Personally, I think that was my grandmother’s luckiest day. She did fine. They all did fine. Better than fine in most cases.

Three days ago, I realized just how much I hate this man whom I never even met. I hate his celebrity, his pomposity, his hubris, his ego. And I mustn't. I am trying to find a way out of this and praying a lot. Somehow, I have to be able to forgive this man. I have to be able to see him as God sees him. If my heart breaks for gangsters and ISIS fighters, it must break for him as well.

It’s not about what he did, or failed to do, his things done and left undone. These will not change and I can't rationalize them or re-analyze them. The job that I have right now, that has been given to me by a gracious God, is to find love in my heart for this man whom I do not love. To do any less is to make myself more righteous than God. It is to say: God can forgive you, Bill Ziegler, but I can’t.

On the 22nd of January I was blessed to recite, as I am blessed to recite on the 22nd of every month, Psalm 109. These words struck me:

He put on cursing like a garment,
let it soak into his body like water
and into his bones like oil.
Verse 7

These words are not about my grandfather, they are about me. I put on cursing like a garment and it may have already soaked into my body like water, and into my bones like oil. I know what I am meant to learn from this verse. Intellectually, I am grateful for the chance to rid myself of this poison. On paper, I know that my soul is weary from carrying this burden of bitterness, a burden which I nevertheless somehow enjoy. How grand it is to hate someone!

So I will pray. I will thank God for showing me my fault. I will thank the Psalmist for touching me so particularly with his words. And maybe, before I die, I will thank my grandfather for teaching my mother to play the piano which gave us such joy, for bringing cheer into many people’s lives (which I know he did) and for starting up a family that has given me tender love and attention. 

Monday, January 19, 2015

A Contemplative Prepares Part II Human Beingness

When I go into my room and close the door and pray to my Father in secret (Matthew 6:6), what do I take with me? Many would say I must take nothing, no worries, no thoughts, no agendas, no lists of things to do or buy, no friends or enemies. But this is not true. Although I set these busy things aside, they are with me still.

What I do strive to pare away in prayer are my preferences, all the things by which I like to define myself: my love of eggplant and Motown, for example, my dislike of politics and progressive jazz. My true self is beneath all these extras. My true self is my human beingness* and I share it with all those other image bearers out there, in other words, everybody. I am not alone with God. I am praying in a crowded room.

Then when prayer is over and I open my door, I can see that holy face everywhere I look because I held it to me in prayer.

C.S. Lewis famously said,

“Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.” (From The Weight of Glory)

When, just a few years ago, I first read these words, I instinctively knew them to be true. More than true, I believed them to be crucial to our lives together. Every person I see is holy. How could it be otherwise? We are created in God’s image. Holiness is our birthright, our calling and our nature. The kingdom of God is predicated on this holiness.

Back to my theater references from Part I. Long ago, I worked in a book store. In that environment, I necessarily became familiar with a great many more books than I would just by following my own preferences. I read books on business, science, sewing, sports, and even acting. It was part of the job.

One day at my lunch break, I picked up Michael Shurtleff’s famous work Audition and read the most extraordinary thing.  He writes, “The desire for love, to give or receive it, and preferably both and simultaneously, is the chief propellant in human beings." Love? Not money? Not power? 

 “…because he first loved us…obviously” I yelled back at the page.

Shurtleff went on to say,  "An actor had best learn that love comes in all forms, and in many more forms than he himself admires". He wanted his students to use this desire in their work. In fact, he said that the only way to be a good actor was to acknowledge this fact and work it into every scene.

So love actually** is everywhere.

This teacher was describing an atmosphere, a context in which we humans operate, a mist of desire for each other that connects us and triggers our understanding of and need for each other. This is what acting is about: that desire, that understanding. This is also a gift of faith.

When are you most authentic with another person? Is it when you’re half paying attention, scrubbing the floor, changing the oil in your car? Is it when you’re thinking about your job, your mother, your child? Of course not. You are your most genuine self when you are fully aware of the other person, physically aware of them as a physical being, emotionally aware of them as an emotional being, intellectually aware of them as an intellectual being and spiritually aware of them as a spiritual being.  

As a contemplative, I have a very big stake in the human race. I can no longer brush certain people aside as I pursue my goal of a better world. I can’t hear some and tune out others. I certainly can’t divide the world up into the righteous and the unrighteous. If our humanity is so bound up with the desire to love and be loved, surely that signals the presence of the God who is love within us.

A fellow parishioner recently asked me about the Order of Julian of Norwich, a contemplative order of monks and nuns in the Episcopal Church with which I am affiliated as an Associate. I described the Order, its function, history, charism. My friend wanted to know when the sisters and brothers went out to work in the community. As I answered in the negative, I could see her shut a door against the Order, and, I suppose, against my vocation in it. To my friend, a Christian has to be an activist in the community; only social work counts, prayer isn't enough.

To have a vocation to prayer is seen by her, and, I suspect, by a great many others, as self-indulgent, blind -- even lazy. When I pray, when I meditate or open Scripture, I am doing so with and for all of humanity. There is no other way. If I am to face God honestly, I cannot separate myself from even one other person.  To have a vocation of prayer is to feel strongly for your neighbor. There are many ways to take care of our fellow beings; this is my way.

*I cannot use this term without proper attribution. Abby Wambauch (pictured above) of the US Women's National Team (soccer) said she would put all her human beingness out on the pitch to win gold for the USA at the 2012 Olympics. She did. 

** Referencing the movie. Obviously.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

A Contemplative Prepares - Part I - Seek My Face

This might be a hard post to read. It was a hard one to write, mainly because I had a destination most uncertain. I knew I wanted to sort these ideas out and writing in the best way I have of doing that. So hear goes.

Back in the mid-nineties I ran a resource center for low-income job seekers. When I took the job I knew it would challenge me. I can talk a good game about helping people and the dignity of all, but I knew this job would test my patience and my so-called heart.  Then I remembered something I learned in fourth grade religion class. I learned that you should look for Jesus in everyone you meet. That’s how worried I was; I decided to try it, this relic from elementary school. So I looked into my clients’ eyes, only half believing that I would see anything there but eyes, yet I saw more. I saw Jesus. I saw the incarnate Savior of the world looking back at me. Every. Single. Time.

Part of me felt I had learned a fabulous trick for helping with my work; the other part of me realized that I had learned even more. I knew then, with no equivocating, that Christ came into the world to save humankind and that a glimmer of his humanity is visible in every one of us. I saw that we are all one, united by this one Being. We toss the term “Body of Christ” around pretty easily but there are huge implications for us and for our world in this tiny fact: we are one.

Then and now, most of my interactions with people are mechanical. Pleasantries at the check-out counter. A wave to a neighbor. Even daily arrangements with my husband: “Do you want wine with dinner?” I understand this is the way the world is; I have no need to make every interchange a soulful moment of deep realization. Nevertheless, I can’t go too long without finding the face of Christ.

And I wonder how it happens for other people, how an authentic recognition can occur, how people can grasp the truth of each other, with or without church or theology.
The great Constantin Stanislavsky (pictured above) tackles this problem through the discipline of the theater. In his magnificent work, An Actor Prepares, Stanislavsky strives to contain the spiritual energy that is exchanged between people. He claims that this is the essence of being, of humanity, and that it is necessary for any genuine portrayal on the stage. To him, the theater is an effort to capture human-ness. He said, “What is important to me is not the truth outside myself, but the truth within myself.”

The effort that Stanislavsky made to reveal this truth to himself, to his students and, ultimately, to the audience seem to be akin to my efforts to find Christ in my neighbor. I will go even further and suggest that everyone on earth has, inside of them, a similar desire.  When characters are revealed on stage, and on screen, what we see is ourselves, our large, complete selves. This is truth. It can feel good or bad, but it is felt. We can intellectualize about it, we can deconstruct it, but it is primarily a felt experience. 

But I wonder: How can something that is patently false, made-up, contrived, like a play, deliver truth? Shouldn't we come away from any drama telling ourselves that life isn't like that and that we’ve wasted our time? Read what Frederick Buechner says,

“If we are to love our neighbors, before doing anything else we must see our neighbors. With our imagination as well as our eyes, that is to say, like artists we must see not just their faces but the life behind and within their faces. Here it is love that is the frame we see them in.” from Beyond Words

Or as Psalm 16 reminds us: My heart teaches me night after night.

In Part II of this essay, I will be taking these concepts a bit further. Please come back for it.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

My 2014 Reading in Review

The following titles are books that I read with special pleasure in 2014. Some of them were published in that year, or thereabouts, but some of them were published much earlier. One, in fact, is now out of print and only available from specialty libraries or second hand. Two are novels; all the rest have largely to do with faith. In a stretched sense, the novels have a religious theme as well.  These titles are in no particular order. Ranking favorite books is just a bridge too far for me. They are all wonderful.

Paul and the Faithfulness of God by N.T. Wright.
What can I possibly say about this massive work? I spent the entire seasons of Epiphany and Lent reading these 1400 pages and never regretted a moment of it. Wright is a man of #onebigidea. In religious matters he is a unified-field- theory type. Here is a cursory summary of the work: God has a plan for humanity. Israel was part of the plan. Jesus WAS the plan. Each one of us is a part of that plan, too. The plan is to perfect creation. Paul grasped this and spent his adult life endeavoring to share his understanding with the world. It was “too light a thing” for him to preach only to the Jews. Christ’s message is for all.
I have greatly oversimplified Wright's masterful argument. It is a brilliant light shining into first Century Palestine and the religious, philosophical and cultural strains that colored Paul's and Jesus' world. How Paul gets from highly observant servant of the Torah to flagrant Christ worshipper and recruiter of Pagans is quite a tale. Read it. 

Lila by Marilynne Robinson.
If you ever wondered what it would be like to be a restless wanderer like Cain, you will want to read this novel. You are neglected by whatever family you have until a kind woman steals you away and takes you on a vagabond journey across Depression America for about 25 years. Then she is gone. You manage as best you can for a while. You can trust no one. You can love no one. You live from one odd job to the next. Then you wander through a rain storm into a church and the preacher sees into your soul. You are saved though you might not want to be.

Scared Rhythms by Ruth Bailey Howard.
I avoided this author for a long time. For some reason, her three names, the soccer mom persona, the upper middle class aura put me off. She also looked a little too much like me. The type, I mean. I like to think I don’t judge by outward signs, but it seems I do. I was wrong. Don’t make my mistake. This woman has a firm grip on what it takes to live a contemplative life, a faithful and prayerful life. She is honest and humble and smart. Her wisdom is accessible but uncompromising and firm.

The Sacred Journey: A Memoir of Early Days by Frederick Buechner. 
Alas, another of my prejudices had to be put to death this year. Memoirs always seem just a touch self-indulgent to me. What’s more they tend to sacrifice art for honesty with sloppy writing* as the end result.  Not this memoir. If all you want to do is read exquisite prose, this is the book for you. If all you want is a gripping story of growing up, this is the book for you. If all you want is an account of how someone raised without religious practice became one of the leading voices in Christian thought today, this is the book for you. I was spellbound. Buechner is 88 years old as of this writing and I plan to read every last one of his books before I reach that age. I’d better hurry up.

Someone by Alice McDermott.
I’m not sure if anyone has ever compared Alice McDermott with Charles Dickens or Virginia Woolf, much less to both of them, but I’m taking that plunge. Someone is as introspective and stream-of-consciousness as Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway but it’s as busy and unpredictable as Bleak House. Marie’s story starts off when she is only seven and ends with her in late middle age. Early in the first chapter she recalls fainting in a delicatessen during her first pregnancy, so we know she grows up, marries and has a normal life. Nevertheless, knowing the outline of her story in no way compromises the tension and worry the reader feels as each new episode unfolds. 

God and You by William A Barry S.J.
Do not be fooled by the title. This is not a children’s book. It is not a simplistic guide to loving Jesus or “being good.” This is a demanding exercise in coming face to face with God in Christ and working out your issues. Barry predicates his thesis on an assumption that we all want something and that God is what that something actually is. You will have noticed the “S.J.” after Barry’s name.  The author is a Jesuit and Jesuits love to trade in apparent simplicities, see also @Pontifex. Barry will convince you that having an intimate relationship with the Almighty is both simple and necessary. There are steps to take and matters to deal with but it can happen. In fact, it will happen.

Let This Mind Be In You by Sebastian Moore
The previous author, William Barry, refers to Moore's book so frequently in his own writing that I finally hunted it down and purchased a second hand copy. The book itself is out of print, but it's worth the trouble of finding it, if you can. Moore begins with the assertion that we are desired by God. In fact our own love of our selves reflects this desire. As we pass from this this innocent perfect state, we perceive ourselves as flawed and therefore become flawed. Christ has absorbed our imperfections and by his life and death and Resurrection perfected us...if only we would see it. If only we would see it.

*Bloggers are guilty of this and I am probably no exception. But it only a blog after all, so….