Sunday, May 03, 2020

Social Isolation 4

It's been a month since I last wrote- a month of learning how to do remote learning for my teaching and of juggling home and work along with the rest of my family. As one might expect, the experience has been an up and down one- sometimes good, sometimes not so much. We've been in social isolation now for nearly eight weeks and we are only now starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel, albeit a long way off. That is a good thing, but it is hard to stay patient.

What gave me the idea to write again was an article which has been circling around my feed in Facebook for the last couple of weeks- We're all monks now- America Magazine. In this article, the author discusses the experience of social isolation with three Trappist monks- 2 from the Abbey of Gethsemani, one from the midwest United States. Of course, monks are, in general, experts at social isolation. That is the point of being cloistered, so monastics might know a thing or two about  solitude in community. The article points out that  social isolation has stripped away from rest of us in the world many of things that we rely on to distract us- busyness, dreams of power and of wealth. What we are left with are ourselves and those we live with day to day. What the monks offer are suggestions from the monastic tradition about how to live fruitfully in simplicity. Practices like lectio divina or reflection can help us deal with the enforced isolation, just as they help the monks dealing with their chosen solitude.

It's a good and hopeful article. It makes the important point that this period of social isolation can offer an opportunity for spiritual and emotional growth. And it can. I think we all realized this early on as the self-isolation was beginning, when we made plans for all the things we could do while at home-projects, more baking, more projects and, of course, spiritual renewal. Surely, we'll have time for all that.

 Of course, it took a couple weeks for reality to set in that our experience in social isolation was going to be different from what we had envisaged. We found ourselves busy, sometimes even busier as we juggled remote work with the needs of our families without our normal supports. Or more stressful because of restrictions on us have made some of our daily or weekly tasks or activities like cleaning or food shopping much harder. And that precious time of reflection and prayer we thought we'd find  has become even  more difficult to manage because those hard feelings of stress, fear and frustration are also blocking our ability to settle down and pray without our thoughts chattering like an over-active ticker-tape.It isn't that God can't be found in this mess, but there is so much more emotional and mental interference than we thought there would be.

Don't get me wrong. I really do think that the article's essential point is right that the experience of social isolation for many of us  is very similar to the experience of the cloister. Yet, I also recall, as the author himself states that

                                 "Because of Covid-19, many of us are living, in a 
                              way, like monks, enclosed and isolated in our
                              homes. But unlike the monks, we did not ask for
                              or want this situation, nor it is one for which many 
                              of us were spiritually prepared."

Right now, I think social isolation for me is like a cloister, but my experience in the last few weeks is  that this 'cloister' is a huge echo chamber for my heart. If I'm in a good headspace, good things echo. I like that.

However, if I'm anxious, my fears echo. If I'm angry, my resentment echoes. All too often, all my emotions, good, but often difficult,  are echoing around in here; each loud, each insistent, creating a cacophony that is overwhelming and confusing. It takes time and work to separate that noise all out. When I take that time and use that energy, there is opportunity for growth and for good. If I'm honest, though, I have to admit that often I just want to shut it all off and block it all out with something, anything. Sooner or later, everyone gets tired.  So, emphatically, do I. 

 I think this helps explain many things about our communal experience in this time. No wonder people are struggling emotionally, mentally and spiritually. No wonder that some people have become hyper-vigilant in reaction to COVID-19, even getting furious when other people take different precautions because they will delay our return to our normal. No wonder why a mercifully small group of  people have moved into denial, believing conspiracy theories about how this isn't as bad as the media is saying and railing against the government for ruining the economy and, ultimately, their sense of the normal because of the COVID-19 restrictions. The irony is, of course, that both of the hyper-vigilant and the deniers are eagerly seeking their escape from this 'cloister' and their return to their normal. I think most of us, especially those of us who aren't spiritual giants, are also doing much the same thing, if less dramatically. 

What I'm saying is that this is a time in which we are stripped down and vulnerable, so this is a time where conditions for growth- spiritual, emotional, mental- are highly favourable. We are being forced to change our way of living and interacting. We can learn from the monks in this article ways to help us to grow gently in this time even in the ways that we had hoped at the beginning of our time of isolation. Yet, growth is never easy and it isn't any easier in this time of social isolation.  We need to be gentle with ourselves in this time as well, acknowledging our weaknesses and limitations. The key is balance.

None of us know what the lessons of this time will be for ourselves or for society. It is still too early to know any of that. My hope is that we might learn something about the preciousness of our everyday lives and appreciate those who we love more. I'm sure that is as aspirational as we all were at the beginning of this time, but no one experiences growth without some sort of aspiration.

Stay safe and stay healthy.
Phil 

Sunday, April 05, 2020

Social Isolation 2- Gratitude List

Over the last couple of weeks, I've tried a couple of times to write a blog entry reflecting on the experience of social isolation without much success. Sure, I wrote things down, but I just wasn't  ready to put them out there because what I wrote felt a bit raw, a bit unfinished. I wasn't sure the world really needed another litany of discomfort and anxiety, so I didn't push the publish button.

What is different today  I think, is that I realized that what I need these days is not another anxiety list, but, rather, something which focused on gratitude. Gratitude in difficult times comes hard, but my experience with gratitude has taught me that consciously choosing gratitude shifts my emotional, mental and spiritual polarity to the good. It works that way because it makes me look at what gifts God has given me, rather than what I'm still missing. Amid the stripping away of the last few weeks, focusing on God's gifts is more important than ever.

Yet, choosing gratitude in difficult times is hard work, but it is, in these times, that any effort to appreciate gratitude is a blessing. I first realized that after the collapse of my PhD almost twenty years ago. Back then, I was meeting regularly with a friend/spiritual director. At the beginning of our meetings, I'd start listing all the things in my life that were bad or sad or frightening or whatever. He'd let me go on for a while, then, he's invariably would look at me and ask "So, what are you grateful?". I usually had to restrain the urge to slug him, but, then, when I did as he suggested, I started to see that things weren't as bad as I thought they were and that, quite unexpectedly, I was in a better mood. It didn't change the challenges that I was facing then, but it shifted the focus away from them for a while and that helped. So, if you promise not to slug me, here is my gratitude list today.

I'm grateful for ...

...health-both my family's and mine
There are so many people who aren't well or who are struggling in a lot of different ways, so it is an important grace to recall that we are still all okay here in our house. And that we're in a position to help, at least, some people who are struggling more or differently than us. And that my wife is so much better at doing that than I am.

... reconnecting with my students again.
The last few weeks have been hard for me because everything shut down at school so abruptly for the foreseeable future, so the community which my students and I have built up this year has been ripped away. However, last week, we started gearing up towards remote learning which will bring me back into contact with my colleagues and my students again. I'm grateful to hear from my students again. I'm especially grateful for the student leadership in the extra-curricular group I supervise, the Classics Club, who have been working on their own with their peers to keep their spirits up during the shutdown. It really was wonderful to reconnect with them on Friday and catch up.

...the Re-Center Christian Meditation app on my phone.
 I downloaded this app a couple months ago and had already found it a valuable tool for managing stress even before all this. But it has been even more useful since. The calm, soothing voice of chaplain Jared who creates these meditations, his lectio divina meditation style and attention to breathing has really helped me when my anxiety has piled up and felt overwhelming, especially in the middle of the night. Mind you, I can't always promise that I heard everything he had to say at 3 a.m., since I have been known to doze off from time to time. But I'd don't think Jared would mind. Or God, for that matter.

...for virtual church
One of the consequences of the COVID-19 crisis has been the sudden advent of virtual church. Given that all churches have closed for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic, this has been the only way that Christians have been able to worship together. I really miss my church- the people, the liturgy and the grounding that brings me, especially when I serve. However, the plethora of virtual church options have helped my family and I to stay connected. There have been so many options, but I'm especially grateful for the the live streaming of services by St. James Cathedral, Toronto and the services by Bishops Jenny Andison and Susan Bell. Their prayers and their words have been important supports for my family and I for the last few weeks.

... everyday tasks
These are the simple things that my family and I do each day- walk the dog, cook dinner, cleanup the deck, clean the house. I'm grateful for them because they are comfortably routine. They remind me that, whatever else is happening in the world, I can do things that help people in the here and now by simply doing the next thing that needs to be done. Simple things like walking or cooking or cleaning remind me of the solidity, the stability of the world around me and that God is here in those 'chores' because they are an expression of my love of my family and the people around me. I'm grateful for the grounding they give me, reminding me that, whatever else is happening in the world, the ordinary remains a way to connect with other people and with God.

...time spent with the family
Despite how deceptively busy our days have become while my wife and I continue to work at home, I'm really grateful for the time we do get to be together as a family. It is so easy to get caught up with work or whatever at any time, but this time of social isolation has cast us more upon our own resources. So, I'm grateful to be spending this time with my family and for the times that we get together, whether it is simply eating dinner together, or playing a game together and chatting or watching a movie together. These are simple pleasures too, but I'm grateful for the company in these days of social isolation.

...for time to translate
Okay, this is sheer geekery, but one of the things that have been a blessing in the last few weeks is that I've been able to find time, not every day, but more often than usual, to get back to my project/hobby of translating various documents relating to St. Martin of Tours (the patron of my parish church). It isn't a lot of time and that is a good thing because I lose focus after a half an hour or so. Nor am I rendering the Latin into particularly elegant English. But it is something that I can walk away from and feel like I accomplished something tangible. Some days, that sense of accomplishing something helps me feel like the day hasn't been just wasted time, but that I did something useful.

...time to reflect
It's still a difficult time and that has led me to reflect more and to journal more. That isn't always an easy thing because my emotions in these days haven't always been easy. And that is okay. We're all in the same boat, I know. But journalling more has helped to process those emotions more consciously and dig deeper into my character defects or fears or frustrations. It has also helped me to keep an eye out for where God is in this mess. All of that is a blessing, even if not always an easy or uncomplicated one.

So, that's my list this week. The coming week is a special one for my family. It is Palm Sunday and Holy Week is upon us- the week when  we follow Jesus through his last week of his life from his entrance to Jerusalem to his death on a cross on Friday to his resurrection on Easter Sunday. It is the most profound week in the Christian calendar and is normally a week of liturgy and community, story and song. Obviously, it is going to be a different Easter this year because we won't manage getting together for our services, but the  story remains as powerful as ever. This year will be different and I don't know how it will look yet for us. But I look forward to walking this road again this week with my family and, virtually, my fellow Christians. Have a blessed week!

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Social Isolation Part 1

It seems like I have time on my hands. Well, many of us in the world of COVID-19 do, as we self-isolate or quarantine ourselves. In Toronto, we're only slightly less than a week in- school off for, at least, three weeks, church buildings closed, public events cancelled left, right and centre. All that has happened over just a few days as we now all try to adjust to a new reality.

Now, as someone who really is a pronounced introvert, I figured that this shouldn't be a huge problem. After all, I like being home with my family, or reading a good book or something like that. And all that has been good and continues to be good. But this is an anxious time for all of us- worrying about whether we'll get sick, or a family member will or about our economic situation or jobs. When faced with something this big, it is hard not to be anxious, especially when the world has changed so quickly and abruptly. It is hard to find our bearings in  a world that has lost its own.

So, what I offer here are observations on what I'm seeing in my life. I don't claim special wisdom or insight. Nor do I offer any of this as advice, but only as markers of where I am. So here we are, in no particular order:

1. Social Media and News
Two things that this last two or three weeks has taught me is
                  a) how much I unreflectively check the news and social media,
                      especially when I'm anxious
                  b) how much those checks not only don't help, but hurt my ability to cope

This isn't an especially new or startling observation about my life. In fact, this year, it has been increasingly obvious how compulsive checking of social media and the news is both an outcome of my anxiety and fuel for it. In a year in which I was trying to navigate two major student events (both now cancelled along with everything else) through a difficult labour year and, eventually, the growing crisis of COVID-19, I would constantly check the news and social media for clues about how things will develop next, thinking if I just knew the next step, I can respond and be ready. That is, I could control the situation and move adroitly to get  to what I want to achieve. With COVID-19, that didn't work because it was simply too big and too fast to get a grip on. It still is. I need to remember that.

 The cost of all that obsessional checking, however, is my own peace of mind and my ability to take things as they come. When I limit my checks of the news to two or three times a day, I'm more peaceful and better able to be available for those around me. I'm more able to pray or meditate and connect with God, which is essential for my own mental health. And I need to remember all that, next time I'm worried and feel like checking the news every thirty seconds will somehow help. It won't. It just won't. Keeping informed is one thing, but stoking my anxieties is entirely a different thing.

2. Work and Relaxation
At the best of times, I struggle with the balance with these two things. In many ways, like many people, my work defines me. I am a teacher and, what's more, I'm a Latin teacher, which has its own bundle of eccentricities and oddities. When school is on, I'm busy and, largely, fulfilled, knowing that, in addition to the curriculum, that I provide a space for my students to enjoy school and be part of something. That means lots of classroom prep, with an overlay of extra-curricular projects and time spent mentoring my students. I'm not unique in any of that, but it makes for a busy life.

Well, now, that is on hiatus and I admit that I don't always know what to do with myself. Yes, I'm marking in a rather desulatory fashion (the least favourite part of my job), but I really feel at loose ends, especially when I reflect that it is likely that the period we'll be away will probably be longer than initially thought.

When I'm busy, I keep telling myself that, when I'm free (in the summer), I'll have time for this or that (photography, translating, re-working the back garden), but, now that I have time, I find a certain lethargy settling in, like I'm not entirely sure how to get started or why.

What is helping with this is just doing something. Even if I doubt it will do much good. Simply cleaning the kitchen each day or taking the dog for a walk, or cooking dinner can help my mood. It helps because all those things are acts of service for myself and my family. They are the concrete actions of love which remind me that I'm connected, still connected to the people in my life. That is probably true at work too, but it takes time for me to realize these little things in my life at home.

Yet, I also need to temper all this with relaxation. I need to take time to recharge. To be quiet with myself. And this is a time which has given me more opportunity to do that. The stress of the last month as things shut down around me took a toll on me, but the times I took to listen to a meditation or prayer or even to mutter a mantra or two (maranatha-come, Lord has been a favourite) under my breath to prevent my head from exploding, have been an essential element to my own mental and spiritual health. I need those moments of quiet and repose. And it seems that I'm getting more and more opportunities for them. I think that is a good thing. Yes, yes, it is.

My ambivalence here, I think, comes from the recognition that all this quiet time isn't necessarily as peaceful and cosy as I would like to think in my working day-dreams. My own experience, confirmed by the combined experience of most spiritual traditions, is that what happens when I have time to meditate or pray is that all those random thoughts that I was scarcely aware of before come flooding in and that it takes time to dis-entangle them. That is, ironically, hard work, but good work because it helps me to see myself, God and the world in a better and less distorted light. And that is the true benefit of meditation and contemplation. I'm not convinced that I'm much of a contemplative, but I do know that contemplation seems to fill a place in my life which leads me to a good place. So, I keep trying.

Those are my thoughts in this first week of social isolation. I hope there will be more, but, for now, I hope you will find my reflections will be helpful for you. Or, if they're not, that you'll forget them quickly.

Now, I have to go and make amends with my son for getting cranky in our Risk game. Stay healthy and stay well.

Friday, January 03, 2020

New Year

It's been a while since I've last wrote on this blog. The combination of a kitchen reno, vacations and, eventually, going back to a very busy and stressful year at work has sapped my energy, but I am hoping to write more in the coming year. Of course, I say that each year in the tone of a resolution, so we'll see about my follow through.

Today what I'm trying to do is simply write down the things which are on my mind and heart to reflect on- more or less in the form of a teaser trailer. I'm not sure if I'm trying to tease myself into writing or whether I'm teasing the reader into reading. We'll see on that too. So, here is what is on my mind on this third day of 2020.

First, my church's youth group is on my mind and heart. For the last year or so, I've been trying to find a way to walk away from this ministry, which I had taken up as an interim thing, telling myself that now that my son is hitting the youth group age, I should step aside because it would be weird for him. It is, he has told me, weird for him, but he's okay with that as it turns out. So, excuse number one is out. And, since then, I've been feeling like God isn't accepting my carefully crafted resignation letter. That means, I'm going to need to try to figure how to do this youth group thing after all.

The truth is, to put it in a nutshell, that I don't have the foggiest about what to do with a youth group. Well, I did get to a helpful conference in November and had a useful meeting with our area youth coordinator, so some of the fog has lifted. It has lifted enough for me to see that what I really need to work out what is my 'end-game' (or, rather God's end-game) with this group. That is, what are we hoping to see for our youth. I'm resisting answering that too quickly, largely because I went through a similar process a few years ago in my teaching and taking the time to reflect on that question was a good thing because that question, truly engaged with, is key to accepting this call I've been resisting.  And, besides, I also know I'm going to need help answering that huge overwhelming question. Until I have a better sense of what I'm doing this for, I'm not going to penetrate the fog far enough to settle into the work properly. So, I'm sure there is lots more reflection to come on this topic.

Second, another theme that I've been reflecting on lately is what place learning has in my life. That isn't exactly a new area of reflection for me because, over the years, I've had questions about my approach to learning. On one hand, I have to acknowledge that, for much of my life, a lot of my desire to learn has been inherently selfish. That is, I often saw knowledge as a way to build self-esteem (if I'm in a PhD program, I must be smart)  or power (because I know more than you- the more obscure the better). Those are incentives to learning, admittedly, but I don't think that they wear well because the pit that they try to fill is just that cavernous. They are, in many ways, a substitute for the place that hole in me which nothing else fits, but God. Realizing that has been important because it has alerted me something which, like all good things, can become an idol, if I let it. I'd be lying if I said that I have set that particular idol down- thinking of knowledge as power or self-importance is simply to ingrained in my thinking. But, at least, I usually see those motivations and have a suitable level of mistrust of them. 

On the other hand, learning has been a real source of fulfillment which isn't about the ego-boost, but rather about a joy that I haven't been able to explain before. Even after I've stripped away the negative motivations for knowledge, I've found that there is something left- a desire and a happiness in simply understanding someone or something in God's world. A key mantra for me this year has been the title of a wonderful book with a wonderful title:  The Love of Learning and the Desire for God by Jean LeClerc.  The book itself is about monastic culture and theology in the Middle Ages, but what the title and the book seem to do is to connect that one's love of learning about the world is directly linked to our desire for God. That is, a love of learning can be an expression of one's desire for God because it is learning about God's world as an expression of a desire to learn about God and our neighbour. That invites a certain 'sapiential approach to learning' in which what we learn is not about learning factoids to show off with, but to see the world as it is and as God made it.  For me, that joyful act of learning comes, firstly, through history (the study of humanity through time) and theology -two disciplines whose practicality may seem less than obvious, but ask the questions about the world and God which make sense to me. But that isn't the only areas that this approach to learning would work.

Yet, I have to admit here too that I really am not entirely sure what all this means. I'm not sure how to go about having a 'sapiential approach to learning'. I only know joy when I see it. Maybe that is all I have to know. Maybe it really is about keeping a beginners mind and staying open to learning more.

Lastly, I've been reflecting on how to live a peaceable life amid conflict. This theme has been highlighted in recent months because,  in my work life, I'm finding myself in the midst of conflicts which are much larger than me. My union is locked in a fight with the province over cuts and, while I support that fight, it isn't one I have a lot of control over. That is hard, especially as I try to shepherd my classes and extra-curricular groups through a highly turbulent time. Much of the stress in the last few weeks has been, for me, about some major events I'm still trying to work on, but might be jeopardized, depending on how this conflict goes. However, most of my attention has been on nurturing the communities that I belong amid these conflicts.

I've been here before. I have the wounds to show it. The worst was 2013 when extra-curriculars were shut down for three months and the uncertainty and tension were palpable. Yet, my students, my colleagues and I got through that. And we'll get through this. What all this brings up for me are questions like; how to fight for what is important, but remaining compassionate for those around me? How to look for hope, when prospects look bad? How to calmly respond, when I'm full of anxiety for the future? Again, no answers for these questions, but I still think they are important to ask.

So, that is where I am right now, at the beginning of a New Year. We'll see where all this goes.

Monday, August 05, 2019

Teaching and Contemplation

It seems like the theme for this summer is reflecting on what has changed in my life in the thirteen years that this blog has existed. So, it makes sense to think about how my teaching has evolved since 200. The exterior circumstances hasn't changed very much. I am still a Latin and Classical Studies teacher and have been in the same school for coming up to fourteen years now. It has been a good fourteen years, really. I like my students and the subjects I teach. Despite the added stress, I enjoy the extracurricular activities I do- an annual Classics Conference and a tri-annual international field trip. I added the international field trips in 2011, but most of the rest haven't changed much.

What I want to consider today, however, is not what I've done or accomplished, but rather what I've learned. I'm sure this would sound odd to my students because they assume, on a good day, that their teachers know  and they, as students, have to learn what that is. Yet, a teacher, to be effective, has to be ready to learn and, if they don't, they stagnate and become less effective. That learning needs to be practical, so what I want to consider today are three practices which I think have been helpful for me. What these three things have in common is that they are intended to dig just a bit deeper than the superficial skating across the curriculum that often characterizes modern education. In a world to busy to think, they invite, I believe, contemplation and some pause and deliberation about what is good in our classrooms and schools.

So, the first practice I've learned is simple- listen. Or, as my beloved St. Benedict says it in the first sentence of his Rule, "Listen with the ear of your heart". What that means is that taking time to listen- to my students or colleagues or parents- is essential and will, usually, tell me something I need to know, if I listen intently and patiently enough. In edu-speak, we would call this 'Student Voice', but, central to the practice, is the assumption that I am not a lone ranger, expounding my wisdom to a passive, but receptive audience. It assumes that all those involved in the classroom have something important to contribute, so listening is a necessity. Sometimes, the listening is just taking a minute or two to listen to a story or a question or comment, which may or may not have much to do with the class, but lets me know about that person in front of me. Sometimes, it is looking at a class and admitting that I think the assignment that I had just written up for them wasn't working, and asking for suggestions about how we can fix it. This is a listening that isn't looking for a vulnerability to exploit or an argument to counter or information to download. It is a listening to hear another person into being. What I've learned is both how incredibly powerful that listening is and how incredibly difficult it is to do with any consistency. I try and I fail. I try and I fail. I try and I fail, everyday. But it is so worth doing.

A second practice is hospitality. That sounds confusing, especially if one assumes the superficial sense of hospitality which sees it as giving food and board. However,  what I'm talking about is something I learned first from Henri Nouwen- welcoming my students into a space which allows them to grow into the person they really are. It starts for me, as it does for St. Benedict, as welcoming a visitor as Christ himself, as a stranger who we welcome hospitably.  In a classroom, that sounds easy, especially on the first day, but keeping that welcome going becomes difficult when the less attractive qualities of our students begin to arise, when that 'Christ' is a bit difficult to keep welcoming, when I'd like to give up looking for the good in the face of, perhaps, not great behavior. Yet, I know that creating a safe and welcoming space is essential for anything I'm going to accomplish in the classroom or with any of my extra-curricular groups. It is that creation of community which gives a home to someone who needs it, if only for seventy minutes, that allows learning, both intellectually and in a social-emotional sense. Teenagers are incredibly vulnerable people and what they really need is a safe space, so they can learn to experiment and, hopefully, to flourish in this world they have inherited. Hospitality establishes that place.

The last practice today picks up a paradox that I've borrowed from St. Bernard of Clairveux (via Kathleen Norris)- 'serious play'. While St. Bernard used that term for liturgy, I've come to believe that 'serious play' is also applicable to learning as well. I say that because play, good creative play, is how small children learn to understand themselves and the world around them. This could just be playing with friends, which helps children to learn how to interact with people. It could be playing with Lego (as my kids do) to learn how structures work. Or it could be something like the time when my son processed the aftermath of a police chase he and his mom saw on the way to daycare one day by playing a verbal game involving some bad bears who crashed a truck. What I mean by 'serious play' is practice in which we learn as creative play- finding joy in the strangeness of Latin grammar, creating strange stick animals to remember parts of speech, taking chances like making a two thousand year old Roman recipe as part of an assignment. The seriousness comes when we begin to learn something about ourselves or the world around us or when we learn something or how to do something which is somehow useful in our broader lives. Obviously, we don't go to school just to play. We are there to learn things which we can apply to our lives. Yet, that attitude of 'play', I suggest, shouldn't be too far away. That is, if we want to encourage our students to be, to use another edu-speak term, 'life-long learners'

Of course, all of these practices are, in very great measure, aspirational. I have boring, frustrating classes at around the same proportion as my colleagues. I fail to listen or welcome some days. I forget to play in the drive to get the curriculum done in the 110 some odd hours I have to teach my courses. Yet, what all of these practices have in common is the desire, at least, to slow down, listen and contemplate both the students in front of me and the subjects that are teaching us about the world around us. In a world which is racing towards career or achievement, they call for slowing down and digging just a little bit deeper. Anything that I can do to further that call, I think, is worth the time it takes.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Contemplation and Action

The last week or so, I've been casting around for another subject, partly because the previous entry was a bit of an act to follow. While I'm grateful that it was received so well, it was a bit of an exhausting entry, so it's taken a couple false starts to settle on a new entry.

What I decided to write about is something else which represents a change for my spiritual life in the last ten or so years- the interlocked combination of contemplation and action. That will, inevitably, strike some of my readers as a contradiction in terms. 'How could sitting and thinking about God be compatible with getting out and doing things? Isn't contemplation just another word for navel-gazing? Get up and do something useful!'

At the root of that objection is an assumption that contemplation and action are mutually exclusive- that one can't do one and the other. Yet, I think that is mistaken. After all, when Jesus was asked what was the greatest commandment in the Law, he answered :   

                                “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all
                                  your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the first
                                  and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it:
                                  ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[b] 40 All the Law and the
                                  Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22, 36-40)

You see what Jesus did here. In answer to the question about the greatest (i.e. one, greatest) commandment, he gave two. One, "Love the Lord your God..." calls forth the contemplation of God with all our faculties- emotionally, spiritually, intellectually. Two, he calls us to "Love your neighbour as yourself"which calls one out and into action. That is, he calls us inward into contemplation of God, but, then, outward to our neighbour which involves action. Then, He anchors it with the last statement which makes "All the Law and Prophets hang on these two commandments". That is, all that God has taught us in the Bible hangs on the love of God and love of neighbour. Just as the two cannot be separated, so contemplation and action can't be separated.

You can see that combination in the lives of so many heroes of the faith in our and previous generations. Thomas Merton combined a commitment to monastic contemplation with a burning desire for peace-making. Henri Nouwen felt the pull to contemplative prayer, but also remained committed to serving his neighbour in his spiritual writings, but, perhaps, more importantly, in his work at L'Arche in the last years of his life. Nor are Christians the only ones who do this. Gandhi had a rigorous ascetical prayer life amid all his efforts to serve his people. I could go on, but you get the picture. All of these figures found that a vigourous prayer life was necessarily for them to do the good that they did in the world. And, conversely, the actions they did in the world were essential for their understanding of what God was asking them to do in their prayer lives. Contemplation and action didn't just co-exist for them. They complemented each other.


Here is the point where I have to admit that my attention-span for contemplative prayer would fill a tea-spoon. I can manage about ten minutes, maybe, fifteen, in prayer before my thoughts spin completely out of control. And that is on a good day. Of course, I know that is common and that it is part of the process of learning contemplative prayer. The desert monastics in the 4th century talk about warring against the logismoi- the chains of obsessional thinking which get in the way of our prayer to God- as a necessary element to getting to contemplation. My difficulties with concentration just mark me as a beginner and I can live with that.


Yet, even in the modest nature of my prayer-life, I have seen that link between contemplation and action enrich how I do things. Compassion and openness to others comes easier when I pray. Listening to God, even a little bit, makes it easier to listen to people. And it is listening and compassion which allow me to build community in both my classes and extra-curricular clubs- communities were students can feel safe enough to risk, whether that risk in intellectual or mental or emotional. Listening also helps me hear the pain and experience of others and impels me to action to find a space for that too in my teaching. When prayer (contempation) and action coincide, good things happen.

Of course, the opposite is true for me. All too often, I lose track of prayer in the course of the day. Fear, resentment, selfishness drive me in ways that I'd prefer not to admit. I make mistakes. I fail to listen. I lose my temper. But, as a desert monastic story goes, when asked what people did in that monastery, an elder said that they fell, and got up, fell and got up, fell and got up". Perhaps it is in my failures that growth comes, usually in the form of remembering to pray. And it is that prayer that leads me to find a way to make amends.

I am, as I say, a beginner and, as a result, I make the mistakes of a beginner. I don't understand everything about contemplation. I doubt if anyone really does. That might be the point- getting to know God is a lifelong endeavor which really doesn't end in our life times (or, at least, shouldn't). But that contemplation, that prayer, doesn't stop when I say 'Amen' and head out to the rest of my life. That prayer should be part of the process of becoming the person that God has made me and, then, translating that into what work God has for me today. And it is that work which leads me back to contemplating who sent me. so I can learn better what I need to do. It all interelates. It is all connected.

Tuesday, July 02, 2019

Change of Heart

Over the last few weeks, I've been looking over my earliest entries on this blog. There is a lot of fodder for reflection, but,  today, I've decided that it is time to return to a theme which dominated the first few months of this blog- the issue of same-sex blessings/marriage. I admit that I'm nervous about returning to this subject because I know how much heat and how little light has emerged out of these debates. That was part of the reason why, in October of 2006, I shifted the focus of this blog from Anglican world polemics on THE issue to a more sedate focus on patristics (Enough With Schism).  I was conscious that the angry adrenaline of this debate was doing me no good spiritually, so I needed to take a break. That break proved one of the best spiritual decisions I could make because it has opened up the space for me to pray and to listen more on this issue, as well as in so many other parts of my life. It is that praying and listening which have helped me, over the last thirteen years, to deepen my faith and commitment to living a Christian life everyday. It has also caused me, almost as a side-effect, to reconsider my position on same-sex marriage, and to affirm the faith and committed relationships of my LGBTQ brothers and sisters.

To understand how big a shift that last sentence is, I have to explain where I was in 2006. In 2006, I was a moderate conservative, pretty convinced by the standard Biblical arguments (Genesis 1:27, Genesis 19, Leviticus 18:22, Deuteronomy 23:17-18, Romans 1:26-27; 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10) and upset at what I saw as the hasty and disorderly actions of the Episcopal Church in the US and the Diocese of New Westminster in conducting same-sex blessings when substantial parts of the Anglican Communion were opposed to them. By 2006, my wife and I were still in some doubt about whether we could stay in a church which was moving this way. However, we were held back by a strong commitment to the unity of the church and did not want to break into a schism which we felt could not fail to be a product of sinful refusal of both sides to work out our disagreements in a Christian spirit. At the very least, we felt we needed to earn our way out - to talk about our disagreement and see if there remained space for us in the Anglican Church of Canada. As it turned out, there was, and that space was in our parish church, which gave us the space to work out our issues and concerns without being judged. I'm deeply grateful for that space because it gave us a chance to sit with our concerns instead of storming out in anger.

What is most striking to me about those entries on same-sex blessings  in 2006 is just how little I was talking about the actual issue itself - whether homosexuality was sinful or not. Now, don't me wrong, I thought that and had my share of arguments about that view with people on various Internet chat boards. On the blog, however, my main concern was the damage to the unity of the church caused by both liberal (largely unilateral) initiatives to support same-sex blessings and conservative (definitely unilateral) decisions to create an alternative Anglican denomination. In fact, in the first few months, I was pretty exercised about both of those issues and was committed to what I had thought would be a good solution - the ill-fated Windsor Report. If only the extremists on both sides would listen....

Yet, what strikes me now about these posts is that, while they were not necessarily wrong, at least, about the ecclesiological issues, they were incomplete. That is, I was focused on how conservatives like me can stay, but it just wasn't on my radar that the same questions were being asked by LGBTQ Anglicans. I entirely missed the other side of the story - a story characterized by rejection and condemnation by the church that they also love. While I was sure I was right about homosexuality, LGBTQ Anglicans were, at best, deluded, so I could (and did) dismiss their stories and stick to the abstract principles that I felt I needed to defend. Never mind that many of those stories, when I encountered them, very often revealed a truly vibrant faith. There was the faith of a conversation partner on a Internet bulletin board, whose partner was nursing him through a chronic illness with the same kind of love and grace that one would expect to see in the most self-sacrificing marriage. That made me uncomfortable with my abstractions. And rightly so.

The turning point for me happened back in 2012, when I was having a discussion with a former student on Facebook (via private message) about the Christian view on homosexuality. We talked about the standard passages (see above) and the attitudes of the Anglican and United Churches on how to interpret them. As we ended the conversation, I was reflecting on how difficult it was to discuss these issues and threw out this comment:  "What I've learned is that I am averse to treating people as abstractions, that the very real pain of gay people means I can't treat this issue as a theological debating point". I remember that I surprised myself with this comment, possibly because it was a codification of much of the discomfort I was already feeling about this issue. I had, I realized, spoken more wisely that I actually knew. So, that comment of mine stuck with me and became a bit of a mantra, as I reminded myself that I had just made a commitment not to treat gay people as theological abstractions. And what that meant was I needed to listen more to the experiences of LGBTQ Christians, not in order to prepare a rebuttal, but with an ear for empathy and the grace notes of their faith. It is in that listening that allowed me to ask the question whether their faith is any different from mine, and, if it isn't, why were they being rejected?

So, what about the Bible? That was my biggest obstacle because those standard passages are in there and, if I was to take the Bible seriously, I really needed to consider them carefully. I know, in my conservative days, I was most convinced by the New Testament passages. In fact, back in grad school, I had made a word study on the key words, especially arsenokoites and malakoi. What I said at the time was that their meaning was pretty clear, but what I didn't admit to was some discomfort about how decisive I was saying these words were. The fact is that I confess that conviction wasn't as definite as I let on. Paul is remarkably coy in his terminology in these passages. Both of those words seem to be euphemisms and, like many euphemisms, are deliberately imprecise (believe me, if Paul wanted to be clear, there was Greek vocabulary for it). It is clear they are talking about sexuality and, likely, about some aspect of same-sex behavior. What wasn't clear was whether he could even conceive of the kind of monogamous, self-sacrificing relationships that advocates of same-sex marriage argue for. Instead, it is more likely that he was reacting to other practices such as temple prostitution or pederasty; both of which I think would cause most people, Christians or not, legitimate concern.

I'm conscious of the irony that I would have dismissed this kind of argument in my conservative days as an attempt to re-write the Bible. Yet, I would defend it by pointing out that we use historical criticism all the time, on controversial topics or not-so controversial topics. I doubt if this argument will convince anyone truly committed to a conservative view, but it fits what I understand about the history and the language of these passages.

If I am right about how to interpret these passages, then, what Paul is condemning is different from what we are seeing in same-sex marriages. If that is true, we have to ask entirely different questions. Do these relationships allow for the kind of self-giving love and commitment that we expect in Christian marriage? Can we see these relationships as a reflection of divine love through the everyday living out of this commitment? I think the answers to those questions are yes, we can. Or are these relationships, in fact, any different from their heterosexual counterparts? I think the answer here is, no, I don't think they are. And, if that is true, I really can't see how we can, in any justice, stand in the way of blessing these relationships in the same way that mine was blessed just over eighteen years ago.

I wish that I could stop here, pat myself on the back for being more affirming and press the publish button, but I don't think I can. I can't because I can't forget how much I wrote on the subject in multiple Internet venues as well as sometimes even in conversations and how easy it was for my words to wound, even when I was trying to be irenic. How easy it has been to be a part of the rejections that my LGBTQ brothers and sisters have suffered over the years. I have seen the effect of that rejection, as a teacher, in the lives of my students, even seeing a student forced to move out their house for being trans. Or hearing a brilliant former student fearing the reaction of their religious parents for coming out. I have seen it as a person of faith, who have seen LGBTQ Christians - lay people, priests, even bishops - rejected, not for the quality of their faith, but for how they express their sexuality. Yet, their faith remains tenacious and firm. I am in awe of that faith, but I am conscious of being a part of that rejection. If there can be any amends for my role in all that, I hope this entry can be a beginning.

I am writing this reflection at a crucial time for the Anglican Church of Canada. In around two weeks, the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada will meet in Vancouver to discuss national issues. A prominent vote will be this one in the form of the final acceptance of changes to the marriage canons which would permit same-sex marriages. I am neither a bishop nor a priest nor even a lay delegate to the General Synod. I am merely a lay person, who has thought about these issues, considered them, sometimes agonized over them, and has come to a different understanding of them from when I started. I offer these reflections for whatever they are worth, hopeful that they may offer a way forward, modest though it is, what feels very much to be a intractable deadlock.