Monday, April 28, 2008

A Little Daily Wisdom

Paraclete Press has just published a book of daily devotions edited by Carmen Acevedo Butcher, A Little Daily Wisdom: Christian Women Mystics. I'm not a fan of the devotional genre, though I've written two such books myself--but this one is unusual. There are no canned prayers, no chirpy little inspirational thoughts, no Scripture texts taken out of context, and no--thanks be to God--application questions. Instead, each day offers a few lines, freshly translated, from a woman writer who lived sometime between 1098 (the birth year of St. Hildegard of Bingen) and 1582 (the death year of St. Teresa of Avila).

When I first picked up the book, I narcissistically turned to my own birth date and read words by Gertrude the Great that seem to turn today's common wisdom on its head. Acknowledging the close relationship between body and soul, she sees an inverse relationship between them:
When your body is touched and troubled by pain, it’s like your soul is bathed in air and sunlight, coming to it through the painful body, and this gives the soul a wonderful clarity. The greater the pain, or the more general the suffering, the more purification or clarification goes on in the soul.

I've long been familiar with the slogan mens sana in corpore sano, "a healthy mind in a healthy body"--I think it was the motto of a school I once attended--that goes back to the Roman poet Juvenal. I've always thought it meant that the healthier the mind (and the soul), the healthier the body, and vice versa. Want to increase your resistance to disease? Practice gratitude! Want to lift depression? Exercise!

But Gertrude the Great turns this relationship around. I doubt if she ever suggests that a sick soul produces a healthy body (though I haven't read the whole book yet), and yet here she seems to be saying that a troubled body produces a pure soul. Would Juvenal approve?

Possibly. I checked out the source of his bon mot, and it turns out that he wasn't expecting good health and comfort to follow him all the days of his life:

It is to be prayed that the mind be sound in a sound body.
Ask for a brave soul that lacks the fear of death,
which places the length of life last among nature’s blessings,
which is able to bear whatever kind of sufferings,
does not know anger, lusts for nothing and believes
the hardships and savage labors of Hercules better than
the satisfactions, feasts, and feather bed of an Eastern king.

Short life, suffering, hardship, hard work--these are givens, and one can only pray for the strength of mind and body to endure them. That's a long way from my usual way of thinking, but it's not so far from Gertrude's call to endurance as a means of purification:

This is especially true of the painful problems of the heart. When these are endured, humbly and patiently, they give the soul a splendid luster, the nearer and better and closer they touch it.
I like the way Gertrude sums up her counsel. After observing that suffering leads to clarity, she suggests another route to the same end:

But remember that kind actions—more than anything else—cause the soul to shine with brilliance.
Kind actions under any circumstances are virtuous. Kind actions while suffering are saintly.

In my experience, most devotional books do not plant little ideas in my mind that keep popping out and making me examine my assumptions. This one does.

I have only one minor complaint about A Little Daily Wisdom. It has those dumb little fold-back flaps that keep the book from lying flat but definitely do not work to mark one's place. I've hacked off the front flap and am using it as a bookmark. If the back flap keeps getting in the way I'll hack it off too, though I hate to do so because it bears a lovely picture of the author, plus the information that she has a Ph.D. in medieval studies, teaches at Shorter College, and has written books about Benedict (of Nursia) and Hildegard of Bingen. It also gives directions to her website.

Monday, April 21, 2008

The Great Wall of America

The Bush administration is trying to slow the flow of south-of-the-border immigrants to the U.S. by building a wall through some biologically diverse desert lands. There's no way to know how effective the wall will be at keeping out the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free. It seems certain, however, that it will have a major effect on plant and animal life in the region.

How many environmental or land-management laws did the Bush administration waive in order to go ahead with building the wall?
a. fewer than 10
b. 10 - 20
c. 20 - 30
d. more than 30

Which of the following endangered species may die out if they can't go back and forth freely between Arizona and Mexico?
a. Sonoran pronghorn
b. jaguar
c. ocelot
d. long-nose bat
e. all of the above

What are scientists saying about the wall's potential impact?
See Juliet Eilperin's article in today's Washington Post.
Her article also answers the other questions, but alas, the answers aren't hard to guess.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Viral Social Change

Yesterday I commented on Gail Collins's op ed piece by asking if all we can do in the face of global climate change is cultivate our gardens, as Voltaire advised. This morning Michael Pollan says yes.

Check out his excellent article in the New York Times Magazine's Green Issue: "Why Bother?" (Pollan is the author of two of my favorite books: The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food.)

Pollan, acknowledging our apparent helplessness in the face of a huge problem, offers no simplistic solutions. Instead, he writes about morality and virtue--not personal priggishness, but rather a kind of viral virtue that might start at the grassroots (literally) and work its way up and out.

I just reread the article, looking for a sentence or two to quote. Trouble is, the entire article is so well conceived and so well written that to present just a few words of it would be to distort its overall effect. But OK, here's one of many striking paragraphs. I hope it will motivate you to read the whole article:

For us to wait for legislation or technology to solve the problem of how we’re living our lives suggests we’re not really serious about changing — something our politicians cannot fail to notice. They will not move until we do. Indeed, to look to leaders and experts, to laws and money and grand schemes, to save us from our predicament represents precisely the sort of thinking — passive, delegated, dependent for solutions on specialists — that helped get us into this mess in the first place. It’s hard to believe that the same sort of thinking could now get us out of it.

I am not a gardener. Green plants bow down before me--and die. But Pollan has almost persuaded me . . .

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Presidential Pounds and the Fate of the Earth

Columnist Gail Collins has a hilarious--and sobering--take on the Bush administration's approach to environmental problems. Click to read "The Fat Bush Theory" from this morning's New York Times.

Mr. Neff chortled as I read her column aloud, but he pointed out that reduction in growth--the strategy Collins lampoons--is also the strategy of responsible environmentalists. The difference between Mr. Bush and other world leaders is not the strategy per se, but the fact that others are calling for greater reductions and setting more stringent goals (or setting goals at all).

Readers genetically or geographically inclined to dismiss Collins's viewpoint out of hand should note that, way down in her article, she notes that Europeans, who set goals, aren't doing such a great job of meeting them.

Does anybody have a solution that will stop environmental destruction cold without plunging the world into a fatal economic depression? Or should we Midwesterners, like Voltaire, cultivate our own gardens and wait for global warming to turn Illinois into a coastal resort?

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Was that chicken a Democrat or a Republican?

"If what we eat says a lot about who we are, it also says something about how we might vote," writes Kim Severson in today's New York Times, "What's for Dinner? The Pollster Wants to Know."

Severson quotes a number of political strategists about the correlation between food preferences and political views, finishing with these observations by a woman who feeds lots of people every day:

JoAnn Clevenger, the owner of the Upperline restaurant in New Orleans, doesn’t need a data set to identify how customers might vote. She just watches what they order.

“The Republicans are more formal and have more attention to structure when they eat,” she said. The classic example would be her delicate trout meunière.

Democrats tend to order earthy, down-home food with lots of juice for sopping, like Cane River country shrimp with garlic, bacon and mushrooms.

But lately she’s seen a lot of interest from both sides for her Oysters St. Claude. The oysters are coated with corn flour, gently fried and then slipped back into their shells and covered with an adventurous, Morrocan-style sauce seasoned with ground whole lemons, garlic, cayenne and paprika.

It’s the ultimate crossover dish, and she believes it’s popular this year because voters are being pulled in several directions.

“You have a respect and a yearning for the past,” she said, “but a feeling like you want something new and exciting that says let’s go all the way.”

So what did you have for dinner last night? We had brown rice topped with assorted vegetables stir-fried in sesame oil topped with little pieces of chicken braised in a coconut curry sauce. With this we drank a South African Gewürztraminer ("Some of the best grape soda I've ever tried," opined Mr. Neff). Dessert was a small bowl of fresh blackberries and a square of dark chocolate.

Read the article and then guess who we're going to vote for. Warning: we rarely vote for the same person.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Bunny: Third week of Easter

Our garden has a new resident. The dogs are ecstatic.

The partridge and the rabbit are still sure to thrive, like true natives of the soil, whatever revolutions occur. If the forest is cut off, the sprouts and bushes which spring up afford them concealment, and they become more numerous than ever. That must be a poor country indeed that does not support a hare. Our woods teem with them both.
--Henry David Thoreau

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

In spite of the Pornocracy

The papacy was so bad in tenth-century Rome that it became known as the Pornocracy. How could the church survive?
Oddly--providentially--the church did quite well in spite of its corrupt leaders.
Roman misrule didn't have all that much effect on the rest of Europe: everyone was too busy repelling Norsemen and Magyars.
A monastery was founded at Cluny, in France, that would spearhead major reforms throughout Europe.
Missionaries were active. Poland, Russia, the Slavic nations, and Hungary became Christian.
The medieval renaissance was about to begin . . .

Frail children of dust

I grew up singing "O Worship the King," a 200-year-old hymn written by Robert Grant, a British MP and social reformer. It includes this concise description of the post-Edenic human condition:
Frail children of dust, and feeble as frail . . .

Now, I don't think we're frail because we are dust--Adam and Eve and Jesus were dust too. Nor do I think that our frailty is limited to our dust component--fallen spirit does every bit as much damage as fallen dust. But frail we certainly are, and our feebleness is especially distressing when it shows up in church.

Like, for example, when religious leaders (not always Catholic, by the way) sexually abuse children, or when they wage their internal wars ("We're more scriptural!" "We're more loving!") in the press and courts of law, or when they fleece their followers to support their own lavish lifestyles.

Is this the church against which "the gates of hell shall not prevail" (Matthew 16:18)?

Well, yes. We're a mess, as imperfect dust-spirit creatures are bound to be, but we're not nearly as messy as we once were. Consider the state of church leadership in the tenth century:

In 904, Sergius III had his two rivals, Leo V and Christopher I, incarcerated and killed. He had come to power with the support of one of the most powerful families of Italy. This family was headed by Theophylact and his wife Theodora, whose daughter, Marozia, was Sergius' lover. Shortly after the death of Sergius, Marozia and her husband Guido of Tuscia captured the Lateran palace and made John X their prisoner, subsequently suffocating him with a pillow. After the brief pontificates of Leo VI and Stephen VII, Marozia placed on the papal throne, with the name of John XI, the son whom she had had from her union with Sergius III. Thirty years after the death of John XI, that papacy was in the hands of John XII, a grandson of Marozia. Later, her nephew became John XIII. His successor, Benedict VI, was overthrown and strangled by Crescentius, a brother of John XIII. John XIV died of either poison or starvation in the dungeon where he had been thrown by Boniface VII, who in turn was poisoned.
--Justo González, The Story of Christianity, Vol. 1: 275

One might read such horrors and conclude that religion does more harm than good. However, despots such as Stalin, Pol Pot, and Mao do not raise one's trust in atheistic benevolence. Here are some ideas I draw from our frail and feeble church:

  • The Catholic reform movement Call to Action is right in emphasizing that "we are the church, the people of God." We are not defined by our leaders. Jesus said our leaders are our servants, not our lords (see Mark 10:42-45).
  • At the same time, we must keep in mind that we too are feeble and frail. "Not the preacher, not the deacon, but it's me, O Lord / Standin' in the need of prayer."
  • People who want an authoritative church to decide, legislate, direct, and control should read more history.
  • People who think John-Paul II and Benedict XVI are going to destroy the church should read more history.
  • Justo González's two-volume set, The Story of Christianity, is a good place to start.
Robert Grant does not leave his frail dusty hymn singers quivering under the bed. His next line puts the emphasis where it should be, especially when the messy church threatens to block our view of the horizon:
In Thee do we trust, nor find Thee to fail.

Monday, April 7, 2008

The Old but Green Parsonage

If you're interested in a vacation that combines scenic walks, good pubs, Arthurian legends, and theological chats over tea and biscuits--and is based on sound ecological principles--check out my friend Morag Reeve's new bed and breakfast, The Old Parsonage.

I met Morag when she was editorial director at Darton, Longman & Todd (London) and worked on projects with her after she moved to LionHudson (Oxford). She has inspired me with accounts of her walking holidays in Sicily and elsewhere, though I have yet to follow her example.

As a lifelong fan of Lerner and Loewe's Camelot (where winter exits March the second, on the dot!), I'm eager to spend time at her B&B. 2009, maybe? If you visit, give her my greetings!

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Kaveny, Commonweal, & Complementarity

If you subscribe to Commonweal magazine, click here to read an insightful column in the March 28, 2008, issue by Cathleen Kaveny, a professor of law and theology at the University of Notre Dame, about the premises of Pope John Paul II's "new feminism." (If you aren't a subscriber, the web site probably won't let you read the article, at least not yet. Take the plunge: for 50 cents a week, you can buy yourself a regular infusion of "Religion, Politics & Culture" that far surpasses any mere blog.)

In Mulieris dignitatem (1988), John Paul defended two seemingly irreconcilable notions: the equal dignity of men and women, and the restriction of priesthood to men alone. Kaveny compares his apostolic letter with the article "Woman" from the 1912 Catholic Encylopedia and finds many similarities:
...both documents emphasize the equal dignity of women and men. Both underscore the importance of Christianity in bringing new insight and commitment to the transcendent value of women's lives. Both present the Virgin Mary as the ideal woman. Both emphasize the importance of maternal virtues for all women, not merely physical mothers. Both strongly defend a divinely ordained difference and complementarity between men and women. Consequently, both are worried about the baleful effects of blurred gender roles.
Kaveny is troubled by the conclusions drawn by the 1912 article: that women and men should not have the same vocational and educational opportunities, that women should not be directly involved in politics or even have the right to vote. John Paul did not share those restrictive views, she acknowledges, but we "don't know why he didn't. We know only that the premises of his anthropological argument are virtually identical to those in the encyclopedia."

"Complementarity" sounds good at first. "God created man in his image; in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them" (Genesis 1:27). If the divine is best reflected by males and females together, not just males or just females, isn't it then obvious that each gender contributes something that the other does not?

Complementarity, however, can be used to exclude as well as to include. To John Paul, complementarity meant that only men can be priests, just as only women can be mothers. But complementarity could also mean that, just as a whole family includes both a father and a mother, a whole priesthood includes both male and female priests.

Wouldn't such a complementary priesthood be a more faithful reflection of God's image, which is male and female, than is today's all-male Catholic priesthood--few of whom have even had the normal male experience of being a husband and a father?