Sunday, November 30, 2014

Advent

It's Advent. Finally. I often have that sentiment as I trudge through the last weeks of that long Ordinary time which stretches from Pentecost to the 1st Sunday of Advent. Ordinary time is so unchanging and fathomless that it sometimes easy to fall into abstractions and stale routine. This particular last few weeks has been tumultuous, stressful and an excellent arena to show off my many, many character defects. All through this chaos, I kept thinking- just make it to Advent- slow down. I was, in a sense, waiting for Advent; waiting for the time when we wait on the Lord.

I'm aware that doesn't make a whole lot of sense. If it helps any, it doesn't make a lot of sense to me either. Yet, amid the busyness and stress and general loopiness of the last few weeks, not a lot has been making sense to me.

So, we're here- at Advent. The 1st Sunday of Advent, no less. What have I found? Hope. Not that, in the last few weeks or days, I've given up hope or anything. But, I've not been looking as hard for it. And, as I was reminded today, hope is the necessary precondition to faith. It is, one might say, its handmaid. So, I, actually had a look around and found hope sitting right next to me- a little battered, a little neglected, but still there.

Hope is a like a switch which reverses the polarity of my life. I go from trying to maintain an artificial sense of control and self-will which will ultimately collapse to remembering that hope tells me that God has it and I don't have to. Hope points me to a much, better world than I can sometimes conceive and places what I do now in that context. Hope points me me to a future instead of holding me in an awkward stasis.  Hope is where I need to stay as we settle into our long, silent wait over the next few weeks.

Happy Advent!

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Anxiety

"It is fear--in the old sense of awe--that allows us to recognize the holy in our midst, fear that gives us courage to listen, and to let God awaken in us capacities and responsibilities we have been afraid to contemplate" Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace

I re-read this sentence this week at a time when I was feeling quite anxious and quite overwhelmed about the demands of this year. For most of the year, my stress and anxiety levels have been quite high as I'm taking on some new projects which I've never tried before and because of what I've felt to be an awkward start to the year for reasons not really in my control. My sleep has been a disrupted and that doesn't exactly help things either. I was feeling out of control and I didn't like it.

What this quote did for me was to remind me that fear and anxiety are rarely gratuitous; that what I was feeling was an indication that something was out of whack, likely related to trying to control some part of my life which I didn't have control over. It was a remind to stop spinning around in circles and listen to see what it was I was supposed to be paying attention to. What I heard wasn't a booming voice from God or even a little whisper on the wind. What came to me was a reminder that I was being stretched in ways that I wasn't used to and that I needed to remember that growth comes with awkward starts and stumbles. And that was fine as long as I learned (again) that perfection isn't in the cards for me and that a recognition of my imperfections is the necessary component of learning what I am capable of. It is that recognition of imperfection which opens me up to growth as long as I'm willing to drop my ego and listen. I'd sooner do everything perfectly straight off (like anyone else), but that is an egocentric dream of infallibility. Looking around, I know that all this fear and anxiety keeps reminding me of that central truth: fear and anxiety are just markers for the growth I'd, otherwise, wouldn't know I needed. It is a reminder to stop trying to control people and events and simply pay attention to just what is it that God is trying to awaken. If I can trust that God has all this in hand, I can take that stretching and those stumbles more in stride.

Now, if I can just keep remembering that, the busy year ahead will be much more serene.

Monday, August 25, 2014

End of Summer Preparations

This is around the time of year for my annual reading of the Rule of St. Benedict. The summer is ending; the start of a new school year is only a week and a bit away. My preparations for the new year are stepping into high gear and I'm honestly looking forward to seeing my students- both my returning veterans and my newbies. I can feel a mild anticipatory buzz in the air as I start thinking about school, although I have to confess that buzz has taken longer to gain my attention this year than usual. Still, the new year beckons and that means so is St. Benedict.

I acknowledge the oddity of this attachment to St. Benedict. I am not a monk nor am I intending to open a monastery in the middle of the public high school in which I teach. For that matter, while I know a monk or two, I haven't darkened the door of a monastery in my life. I come by my appreciation of St. Benedict through books: Kathleen Norris, above all the rest, but also Henri Nouwen, Thomas Merton and many others. That I confess I find incongruous because, if there is one thing that Benedictines are known for, it is community, so it seems odd to me to come by Benedictine values outside a community which espouses those values. Yet, here I am with a copy of the Rule next to me, waiting to be re-read. What is which brings be back to Benedict at this time of year?

What St. Benedict has done for me is to suggest a life where one's Christian faith is central to all that I do and that comes out in the little things that I do from day to day. He incorporates prayer, work and study in such a way as to keep a nurturing balance between them. This isn't a question of praying the seven monastic hours or follow a full, rigid  monastery schedule of so many minutes to sacred reading, so many for work, so many for prayer: that just doesn't work in the everyday, hectic life of a high school teacher. The insight St. Benedict gives is the principle that all three, prayer, work and study, are important and, more significantly, that God is found in all three. Obviously, it is easier to accept that prayer and even study (especially if it is of Scripture) include God, but Benedictine wisdom has found ways to find God in the everyday work that we do.

It comes out in the reverence for the things and people around us, recognizing them as part of God's world and, thus, precious. At the beginning of the year, I look out over each of my classes and wonder just what is God doing in bringing us all together. Where I am going to find Him sitting, sometimes in deep disguise, in the lives of my students? And how am I supposed to respond to that disguise?

For that matter, how do I make good decisions about my teaching? Where is God in the decision to use a certain technology? What is the care I need to use in taking care of the tools entrusted to me? How do I decide what is a success and failure? How do I move past mere numbers and marks, so I can see the child of God before me? The more I teach, the more I know that I don't always listen to God attentively day to day, hour to hour and minute to minute, but St. Benedict's wisdom calls me to try, directing my attention to the daily routine and asking me to find where God is residing right now, in this moment. I know He's there, but it sometimes takes me a long time to notice.

All of those questions demand reflection and rigourous honesty, but they are, because of that, extremely important. They are important because I've seen what can happen when I listen to where God is leading and create that safe, reverent place for others to learn and to grow. I once confused an administrator one year when I answered her question on the value that was most important for me as a teacher. I answered 'hospitality'. What I meant by that is that one of the most important values for my teaching is the creation of that open space which allows my students to be themselves and, thus, to grow. That value is at the centre of the little community which has grown out of the Latin program at my school and it is at the centre of how I try to run my classroom. It is an ideal and I know too well when I fail to pay sufficient heed to it. Yet, at the centre of the hospitality I offer my students for as long as they are with me is that reverence for what is before me that St. Benedict teaches. The real challenge to live out that reverence every day, every class and in all that I do.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Summer Plans

As of Friday, the 2013-2014 school year is over. The marks are in. The clean-up from the last frenzy of assignments, exams and marking marathons is done. The obligatory staff meetings with their celebrations of our successes and reflections on our performance are all done. What is left is two months of summer in which to recharge our batteries and, if you are anything like me, start planning for next year. At this point in the summer, I have a long list of things that I want to do over the holiday. I probably even do some it. Just not as much as I think I will now.

Still, despite those plans, I have to admit that I never entirely know what do with my summers. Part of that, of course, is the challenge of summers with the kids home (at least my oldest, my youngest is still at daycare because we have to hold the spot). Yet, a certain sense of unease that two months of open time gives me predates kids and, indeed, even teaching. As a student, I made it a point to spend the summer reading background material. In fact, one year, I was so uneasy about the long four months break I had from university that I decided to write a twenty page paper on the decline of Byzantine power in the 14th century. All that summer, I worked forty plus hours at my summer job and massively over-researched this paper, despite the fact that there was pretty much no reason for doing it. It wasn't course work. It wasn't a thesis. I was simply doing it 'cause. You can imagine the odd looks I'd get when I explained what I was doing.

Yet, I suspect that the real reason for writing that paper (and, I suspect, for my extensive plans for 'getting ahead on lesson prep for next year) was probably I'm not entirely sure about what to do with myself when not busy. Busyness for me is a way to to fill up the empty spaces in my life in a reasonably socially acceptable way. Busyness allows me to cover over my desire to to retreat from the social realm because it is just easier to be busy than engaged. It provides an ego reinforcement that I'm valuable because I accomplish so much. It provides a way to avoid myself and the reflection that, perhaps, I'm just not as great as I'd like to think I am. Busyness can be compulsive for me which is a tendency which I have to keep aware of.

Of course, I'm aware this compulsive busyness isn't a good thing, really. I do need to rest. I do need to recharge. Certainly, the experiences I had this year with the quiet time I had at the Royal Botanical Gardens and on my Greece trip show how much I need those moments of silence and meditation in order to centre myself for the challenges of my legitimately busy times. In addition, I also know very well that busyness often gets in the way of my other firm belief that, as Henry Nouwen reminds us, the point of one's work is often in the interruptions of one's work and I want to remain open to those interruptions. If I am so busy that I don't have time for people, then I probably have failed in my true vocation as a Christian; that of, seeking to live out God's kingdom here and now. After all, God has an awful lot of things going on at any given point, but He has time for me when I mediate and prayer. How, then, can I not have time for others?

I can't say I won't do any work over the summer break. I have my plans and my projects, like every year. However, I find myself noticing my need to slow down, connect with God and with the people in my life. The long summer stretches out ahead of me and that is, probably, a good thing.

Sunday, June 01, 2014

Pride, Anger and Thwarted Lust

Over the last week, I've been reflecting on the Islas Vista shootings, along with, I'm sure, a lot of other people. That is, of course, a natural reaction to this kind of incident because it is disturbing to see open violence breaking out in our seemingly peaceful streets. What makes this all the worse is that the now dead shooter left behind a video and manifesto in which he declares himself perfect and, coldly and calmly, outlines his plans for retribution on his fellow students and the world. Watching normal human compassion and love shrivel in the face of an all-consuming rage is a terrible thing. To reach the pitch that one can declare oneself perfect and akin to a god, who can hunt down his fellow students like animals is something that should repel us. It also should cause us to wonder what is it about our culture which breeds this kind of hate-filled (usually) young men, whose only outlet for their feelings is violence and murder. How does this happen in a society which is supposedly at peace? And, if we are at peace, why are we not peaceful? Why do some young men, albeit a very small number, find the only solution to their everyday frustrations in a blaze of destructive violence?

 I don't know the answers to those questions. Of course, many explanations have been offered  for this and other shootings- mental illness, video game culture, gun culture, a crisis in masculinity or rampant misogyny. Indeed, it is more than likely that there is not any one simple answer. Certainly, all these reasons and more have been seen in the recent #notallmen and #Yesallwomen.  I admit that I haven't really followed this debate closely because I find what I've seen all too familiar. I recall vividly the same debate in the aftermath of the L'Ecole Polytechnique shootings in 1989. I can understand the temptation implicit in the #notallmen position because almost no man wants to be tarred with the same brush as an Elliot Rodger. That attitude reflects a repugnance for both the actions and attitudes of this person which is a good thing as far as it goes. We would be a lot worse position, if men didn't want to disassociate themselves from such an act.

Yet, it is also probably right to say that the #notallmen position sets rather a low bar for male behavior, if this disassociation is all that is needed. I am uncomfortably aware that the same attitudes of entitlement to sex, seeing women as collections of albeit desirable parts or as prizes to be won, have been a part of my own thinking and behavior. Certainly, my penchant for the Unrequited Love Olympics in my twenties and thirties reflected this because I was really more interested in keeping the image of the particular object of my affections on the pedestal I made for her or working out how I could win the prize she represented than in the real, breathing person behind the image. That this focus was an inherently de-humanizing and objectifying one is only something that I came to realize after I got married and lived with a woman in a way that forced me to see both the good and bad in her and loving her for who she really is, not as I want her to be. Even with that lived experience, I still have to monitor my thinking and my relationships with women to make sure that I'm seeing them as the people they are, not as extras in the (self-centred) drama of my life or, worse, as mere objects.

The challenge of Elliot Rodger, I think, is not to explain why he is different, but, rather, to identify those parts of one's own heart which are similar to his. About a week ago, when I watched the video he left behind before his rampage, what came to my head immediately was that the Desert Fathers were so right about the importance of what we think. These monks considered that they would make no spiritual progress, if they didn't confront the 'bad thoughts' which accosted them daily. These thoughts have been translated into the Western moral tradition as vices, but they are better understood not so much as actions as dangerous thinking patterns which leads the soul into a willful decision to pursue the objects of that thinking in the place of God. So, lust takes the desire to connect with another person to the point of wanting to possess that person as an object. Anger takes the desire for justice to the point of imposing one's will on another. Pride takes the recognition of one's preciousness in the sight of God to the point of displacing God and feeling one can be God in one's own life. Despite an alarming tendency of many Desert Fathers, like so many of their contemporaries, to find an infinite variety of demons in one's soup, these early monks seem to have understood something that we have problems seeing. They understood that one's thoughts makes one vulnerable to self-will and, from there, to displacing God from one's own life. That is why they gave so much attention on how to pray and how to deal with these distracting 'bad thoughts'.

I don't know what happened to Elliot Rodger to led him to think and act as he did. There is reason that those factors were amplified by mental illness. And, the way this mental illness manifested itself was, also, shaped by the misogyny of 'rape culture' which pervades much of pop culture and many sub-cultures in our society. What I see is the results of 'bad thoughts' running rampant through ones life. Ultimately, it was anger, pride and thwarted lust which led drove out justice, humanity and love out the heart of this young man. That a tragic thing but a tragedy further compounded by the murders that this young man perpetrated on his fellow university students. I don't know how else to react to this tragedy, but to mourn those who died, identify the lies I hear from society and keep a watch on my thoughts. That's not enough, but it's all I have right now.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Tower of Babel

11 Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward,they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.
They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”
But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.” So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel—because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.

I've been thinking about the Tower of Babel this week, which is, I admit, kind of an odd thing to be thinking about. To some extent, I have to blame Jason Byassee, whose excellent book, Praise Seeking Understanding: Reading the Psalm with Augustine, has had me thinking about allegory. And that, by means I cannot quite explain, led me back to the Tower of Babel- on the subway, no less.

I should explain that the Tower of Babel story has fascinated me since my early twenties, while I was still very much at a beginning stage of seeking my spiritual way. Something about that story caught my attention to the degree that I, eventually, wrote a short story set in Babel in the aftermath  of the confusion of the tongues. What attracted me, I think, to the story wasn't so much God's action as the alienation which resulted from this hubristic endeavor to reach the heavens. From a unity which seemed to be able to accomplish everything, the people of Babel, after the confusion of tongues, fragmented and scattered all over the world. It seemed an allegory of humanities' profound alienation with itself which fit, almost perfectly, my thinking in my early adult existentialist phase.

Besides, it was an excellent metaphor for the other, ulterior motive for the story. The last two or so pages of the story featured a reflection of the narrator and his lover, who, as luck would have it, found themselves divided by a linguistic chasm and were unable to understanding each other any more. That was a rather pointed allegory for the person I was writing it for- a girl at work, in whom I had been, rather obsessively, interested in and who was off to university in a different town. Back in those days, I was in rigourous training for the Unrequited Love Olympics, so the whole theme of estrangement and loss fit in well with how I was thinking and feeling around that time. I can't say whether the story was a good story (I didn't keep an extra copy) nor can I, honestly, say the story delighted the poor girl. I'm pretty sure that it wouldn't delighted me, if I had been in her place. No one likes two-by-fours being slammed into their heads-allegorical or not.

Yet, the Tower of Babel has stayed in my head over the years. I think that is because my twenty-three year old self seemed to get something right with that story. What I wrote about, I think, was not so much the self-exagerrated loss I was feeling for the loss of a love-interest, but, rather, a greater estrangement with the world and the people around me which was something of a common place in the existentialism I was reading at the time. More important I think, the story of the Tower of Babel story resonated my own growing disconnection with other people at the time as I began to retreat more and more into my head- a disconnection that would continue to grow over the years and one which I've only really started to slowly emerge in the last ten or fifteen years. The estrangement at Babel made such profound sense to me because I felt I was speaking a language no one else knew and, as a result, I really didn't get how the world worked.

Still, I don't think I quite got all of the story. The estrangement and the alienation was, for me, easy to understand, but it has taken this long for me to realize that the Tower itself represents our efforts to control our lives and, if possible, our own salvations. By building a tower to heaven, we don't have to rely on God for redemption. We can climb there ourselves. Given human weakness, that is unspeakably arrogant, but it does seem to be something shared by a lot of people, including myself when it comes down to it. I know that, for me, the temptation to make myself my own God and, then, control my salvation is a real and attractive one. It would be so much easier to decide what is best for myself, rather than wait on God's own timing and the chance he'll redirect me, albeit to something better. I know I want what I want, so why would I bother with waiting on God's answer, when I obviously know better myself?

Yet, what I've learned over the years is that I don't know better myself. Time and again, I've managed to prove that my attempts to control my life have proved pathetic failures which cause more confusion and pain in my life, not less. I want to build my own tower to Heaven, where I will find fulfillment on my own power and my own terms, but I can't. I don't have the ability.

Instead, what I have to come to realize is that this kind of tower building leads to disconnection for me. When I think I have control over my spiritual life, I manage to prove to prove I don't really understand God or other people or, ultimately, myself. That tower represents for me a delusion of my self-sufficiency which is a delusion which, for my own good, needs to be confronted and scattered to the four winds. In sharing one language, the people of Babel were able to keep up their delusion of a power greater than God. When their tongues were confused, they confronted that delusion and, as a result of that confusion, scattered.

Yet, the story doesn't end here. The confusion of the languages is a vivid image of the disconnect with God and other people, but it isn't the last word. With the onrushing of the winds of Pentecost, all the languages of the world ultimately combine back together as they translate our one true language: the language of God's love. When the disciples miraculously praised God in many, many languages, the effects of the Tower of Babel were, for that brief, but important moment, reversed, prefiguring our reconciliation and the adopting of that common language of God's love which really binds us together.

That is, of course, which provides the way forward for me. God's love may prove to be a difficult second spiritual language for me, but its very universality opens the way to share it with those people who are in my life. Learning that language means a reliance on God and a willingness to love my neighbour, which exactly is needed to turn back the effects of my own tendency to build my own tower and control my spiritual life. Translating it into my life means more serenity about my place in the world which can only lead to reconciliation with God and the people He places in my life. I'm still not very good at that translation, but I can see my progress along this road which is all I can hope for. Perhaps that is all we can all hope for.

Phil


Sunday, April 06, 2014

Evidence of Failure

This is the time of year when, for me, the prospect of failure becomes the most strong and the hope, carefully nurtured since the beginning of the year, becomes most faint and fleeting. This is the time of year when I become aware that the bold plans of the fall have not entirely been realized and that there are loose ends which I won't get a chance to tie down. This is the time of year when I know I didn't reach that kid, that's right, that kid, who began my course with great enthusiasm, but has become discouraged and listless. This is the time of year when I'm aware of the mistakes I've made and the lessons not quite learned. As the snow melts and the spring gradually begins to warm the air, I realize that there are only two months to go and I'm not, again this year, the perfect teacher.

Of course, that isn't a stunning realization for me. I've been teaching for ten years or so now, so I'm familiar where this reaction comes from. I know that I'm the one who is expecting perfection from myself and that I'm expecting too much when I do. As the saying goes, 'perfect is the enemy of the good', so I know not to worry about my lapses in perfection and that I should start looking at the good I've been doing. That good is, usually, pretty substantial. I have a wonderful job, teaching courses that I love to students who, mostly, appreciate what they're learning and experiencing in the time they have with me. I can look for where I've touched the lives sometimes by providing a safe place to land, or a place to belong or simply a sympathetic ear. I'm happy with those goods because they are what I have and they remind me of a God who, while being perfect, created a world which he did not pronounce perfect, but rather good and very good.

Ultimately, the drive for perfection is a desire to control; a desire which I recognize in myself whenever I set up an impossible standard and, then, berate myself for not achieving it. Ultimately, perfection, as an ideal, means that everything is predictable and controlled, so nothing goes awry, so that all that I demand of the world and the people around me is done. That means that, whether I want to admit it or not, I'm asking for God's power to control and manipulate my own private world. And God helps us all, I, or anyone else, ever manages to achieve that degree of control in their own and other peoples lives.

When that mirage of perfection shimmers before me, the most important thing for me to recall is that, day to day, hour to hour, I deal with people-not the least, myself- who, by definition, are simply not predictable or under my control. They have their own free will (and so do I) and their own minds. And that is all to the good. Who wants automata, when they can rejoice in the much more interesting mystery of those persons who they meet and interact with day to day?  And, given our lack of omniscience, how could we not fail to be perfect, while succeeding at being ourselves, faults and all? So, most days, I try to let go of control and for the perfection which is supposed to be the manifestation of it, so I can embrace the good of the world as I find it.

So, I'm okay with this evidence of failure this time of year because it is a good reminder that, thankfully, I'm not really in control. I remember that, when I teach, I'm dealing with flesh and blood, spirit and mind, so I can only yield to the mystery of who God has thrown my way in the hopes that I can, somehow, do some good with my life and, maybe, just maybe, be an instrument of God's redeeming love and peace for the people I am with. Not perfection nor control, but, if I can manage it, good and, yes, even very good.