Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Lament for a Son

In sharing his own laments, Nicholas Wolterstorff has given us a gift.  Christians are often hard-pressed to confront grief with honesty.  In Lament for a Son, Wolterstorff removes the rose-colored glasses, and eschews Stoicism in favor of an honest wrestling with the reality of Death and the presence (or absence) of God in it.  His honesty is akin to Lewis's in A Grief Observed, though his dominant voice is one of wounding rather than anger.
Here are a couple of brief passages:

“All these things I recognize. I remember delighting in them —trees, art, house, music, pink morning sky, work well done, flowers, books. I still delight in them. I’m still grateful. But the zest is gone. The passion is cooled, the striving quieted, the longing stilled. My attachment is loosened. No longer do I set my heart on them. I can do without them. They don’t matter. Instead of rowing, I float. The joy that comes my way I savor. But the seeking, the clutching, the aiming, is gone. I don’t suppose anyone on the outside notices. I go through my paces. What the world gives, I still accept. But what it promises, I no longer reach for. 

I’ve become an alien in the world. I don’t belong anymore. When someone loved leaves home, home becomes mere house.”
"I skimmed some books on grief. They offered ways of *not* looking death and pain in the face, ways of TURNING AWAY from death out there to one's own inner 'grief process' and then, on that, laying the heavy hand of rationality. I will not have it so. I will not look away. I will indeed remind myself that there is more to life than pain. I will accept joy. But I will not look away from Eric dead. Its demonic awfulness I will not ignore. I owe that--to him and to God." 
"Someone said to Claire, 'I hope you're learning to live at peace with Eric's death.' Peace. Shalom. Shalom is the fulness of life in all dimensions. Shalom is dwelling in justice and delight with God, with neighbor, with oneself, in nature. Death is shalom's mortal enemy. Death is demonic. We cannot live at peace with death.
When the writer of Revelation spoke of the coming day of shalom, he did not say that one day we would live at peace with death. He said that on that day 'There will be no more death or mourning, or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.'

I shall try to keep the wound from healing, in recognition of our living still in the old order of things. I shall try to keep it from healing, in solidarity with those who sit beside me on humanity's mourning bench."  

Like Lewis, Wolterstorff ends with his trust in the Trinitarian God fully intact, but you know and feel the lingering shadow of death even in his words of hard-won faith. 

Monday, February 19, 2018

Wendell Berry - The Real Deal

Every now and then I operate under the delusion that I am a writer.  And then I go and read Wendell Berry and I am immediately divested of my delusion of grandeur.  This is one of many, many passages in Hannah Coulter that struck me as particularly wise and beautiful.  There were dozens and dozens of descriptions of the ordinary that gripped and drowned me in a whirlpool of longing and sadness and beauty and joy. 

"You think winter will never end, and then,when you don't expect it, when you have almost forgotten it, warmth comes and  a different light.  Under the bare trees the wildflowers bloom so thick you can't walk without stepping on them.  The pastures turn green and the leaves come.

You look around presently, and it is summer.  It has been dry a while, maybe, and now it has rained.  The world is so full and abundant it is like a pregnant woman carrying a child in one arm and leading another by the hand.  Every puddle in the lane is ringed with sipping butterflies that fly up in a flutter when you walk past in the late morning on your way to get the mail. 

And then it is fall and the cornfields are ripe and the calves are fat and shiny and the wooded valley sides are beautiful with color.  The sun is bright, the air clear, and the shadows dark.  There is the feeling of completion and storing up and getting ready.

You have consented to time and it is winter.  The country seems bigger, for you can see through the bare trees.  There are times when the woods is absolutely still and quiet.  The house holds warmth.  A wet snow comes in the night and covers the ground and clings to the trees, making the whole world white.  For a while in the morning the world is perfect and beautiful.  You think you will never forget.

You think you will never forget any of this, you will remember it always just the way it was.  But you can't remember it the way it was.  To know it, you have to be living in the presence of it right as it is happening.  It can only return by surprise.  Speaking of these things tells you that there are no words for them that are equal to them or that can restore them to your mind.

And so you have a life that you are living only now, now, and now and now, gone before you can speak of it, and you must be thankful for living day by day, moment by moment, in this presence."  --Hannah Coulter

Saturday, January 28, 2017

A Fierce & Difficult Calling

An unknown student contacted me out of the blue a couple weeks ago to ask if I’d be willing to contribute to his research on how prisoners’ art affects those who were, directly or indirectly, victims of their crimes.  He particularly wanted to know if I would react to the art of Harold Wayne Nichols. 

Who is Harold Wayne Nichols?  He’s the man who, under cover of darkness, broke into our home in Chattanooga where one of my housemates lay sleeping.  My other housemate, Sue, and I were both working overnight shifts.  Karen was home alone.  He violently subdued her, raped her, and left her for dead.  She died the following day.  He raped 8 more women over the next couple of months, one of whom was a co-worker of mine.  He killed Karen.  Sue became an addict in the aftermath of this event and died prematurely last week at age 50.  My co-worker (ST) never recovered any normalcy in her life. 

How do I react to the art of Harold Wayne Nichols?  There’s no simple answer to that because the truth is, a whole host of reactions immediately go to war inside me. These internal opponents can be summarily identified as indignation and mercy and have waged war inside of me since 1988.

There’s one part of me that identifies with the brokenness of his humanity and feels compassion for the abandonment and abuse he endured in his childhood, which no doubt left him unwhole.   There’s a part of me that knows he was created, like each of us, in the Image of God and I genuinely hope and pray for his repentance and restoration.  But there is that part of me that wells up with anger when I remember his heartless acts, his temporary remorse, and his absurd attempts to force re-trial after re-trial with no regard for the peace of dozens affected by his heinous acts.

That part of me says, “I don’t give a damn about your art!  It’s nothing but hideous child’s play from the soul of the man who destroyed the  lives of many beautiful, young women.  Burn it.”

But more than the art itself, I despise your flippant descriptions of it and of your life in prison. Your words are laced with undertones of victimization: “I haven’t seen the stars in many years because the glare of the prison lights and cages and other obstructions meant to keep me in also seem to keep the stars out.”

Well, guess what, Harold?  Those stars have not been visible from 6-feet under for the past 29 years to a girl whose eyes have long since been eaten by the worms.  You bastard. How dare you bemoan your own hardship when Karen is dead, ST never “lived” another day, and Sue died a long, slow, tragic death?  Not one of them chose the deaths you handed them…the choices were all yours.  They’re dead at your hands.  And yet you live…to complain about the absence of stars.  How dare you?

“Everywhere I turn, prison is the most prominent aspect of my existence.  No matter what I do, no matter what color or beauty I attempt to bring into my life, I am always reminded every day that I am in prison and that I have a death sentence looming over me and that I will be forever limited in what I can accomplish.”  You poor mistreated soul.  How can society be so cruel?  After all, it was just a couple of  rapes…well 9…and a murder….but you didn’t really MEAN to kill that 21-year-old Christian virgin.  If only she hadn’t fought so hard.  Explain to me why I should feel sorrow for your confinement in a place that provides you shelter, safety, warm meals, a bed, a warm shower, a library, education, counseling, and even PAINTING LESSONS…all at no cost to you?

“I still have a life and intend to enjoy it as best I can.  I think that is the reason I draw and paint – because I enjoy living.”  How dare you brag about how much you delight in living when you robbed so many others of life?  Karen enjoyed living too until you snatched her breath in a moment of violent self-absorption,  Until you decided you had the right to do as you pleased with her life.

“Does it sound bizarre that a man sentenced to death by electrocution would work making electrical repairs?  Well I guess it is but until the State takes it away I still have a life and I intend to enjoy it.”  You nonchalantly mock the “irony” of this then follow with a taunt of “Ha! I’m still alive…that is, until the evil state robs me of my life”?  I hear an undercurrent of amusement, but there is NO humor in this for those of us on the outside who have lived with the consequences of your choices, Harold.  No humor at all.   

You know, I might find your words and art tolerable if there were even a slight hint of humility in them.  I understand making grave mistakes…I’ve made them. I understand desperately needing a new start…I’ve needed more than one.  I even understand the lasting effects of abuse…recovery is long and hard.  But when your words drip with frivolity and victimization, I want you to go to hell.  Indignation drowns mercy.

You beg for sympathy. when you should give thanks for mercy.  You want sympathy? If you want MY sympathy, then demonstrate that you have grieved and suffered and carried the weight of your sins.  Talk of sorrow and repentance.  Make things right with those whose lives you shattered.  Use your energy to help others avoid your sins, rather than justifying and dismissing them.  Acknowledge the hurt and destruction that OTHERS still bear today BECAUSE OF YOU.  Your attempts to garner pity leave me cold.

BUT…by virtue of my confession that Christ is the Refuge, the Shelter, the Savior, the Great Merciful One…by virtue of my declaration that I am his follower…by virtue of him rescuing me and forgiving me…I am called to more than indignation.  I am called to rescue even those who don’t yet see their need for it. I am called to extend mercy where it is not deserved.  I find this a fierce and difficult calling when confronted with your art and your words, Mr. Nichols.   A very fierce and difficult calling.

And THAT, young student, is how the art of Harold Wayne Nichols affects me.

Friday, December 9, 2016

A Reluctant Eulogy

My parents couldn't reach me by phone so they drove an hour to deliver the message in person.  Only...I wasn't home.  So it fell to my youngest son to tell me Aunt Riesa was gone.  I'm not sure either of us were prepared for my reaction.  I'm not even sure I knew, until that moment, how very much I loved her. 
Later that night, my mother asked me how I'd feel about preparing and delivering Riesa's eulogy.  "No.Way.  I am waaay too emotional...I'll never make it through.  Listen to me!!!  I can't even form a sentence without falling apart!"  That's when I learned she had already volunteered my services and her suggestion had been universally approved.  Gee thanks, Momma. 
In the end, I was glad she proceeded without my permission, because it forced me to engage in the active work of remembrance, grief, and thanksgiving which I might otherwise have avoided...or at least delayed.
Since many of you knew Riesa along the way and were blessed by her life, I'm sharing these "good words" in reflection of her 58 years. 
My sweet little girl, Riesa Kay Waggoner, was born on March 18, 1958.  In spite of the objective reality embedded in that date, the fact is: Riesa didn’t age like the rest of us.  When I was 11, she was 18.  When I was 23, she was 18.  Somehow I blew right past her all the way into my late 40s while she managed to linger at...you guessed it...18.  But who was I to question?  She didn’t take kindly to those who attempted to persuade her that she was actually 30-something…or 40-something…or 50-something!
Riesa didn’t always have control over the realities of life in the same way she assumed control over her age.  Her birth was accompanied by some measure of chaos and her entrance into this world was traumatic, resulting in an APGAR score that was too low…a troublesome indicator of things to come. 
In 1958, attitudes and perceptions about babies born with Down’s Syndrome were drastically different than they are in 2016. Once Riesa was labeled as “Mongoloid” – as they called people with Down’s in those days –  some doctors suggested she be institutionalized and forgotten.   After all, she wouldn’t live long and certainly not well.   She would only be a source of inconvenience and trouble for an otherwise healthy family.  But these doctors didn’t reckon on one thing:  Mother Shirley
Thankfully for all of us, her mother – my Grandma – saw things differently.  She valued the life of her “sweet daughter, Riesa” and devoted herself to her survival.  That’s no exaggeration.  Riesa’s very life was at stake because she was unable to nurse or take a bottle for sustenance.  Her mother remained on active duty around the clock in order to feed her from a medicine dropper at intervals that allowed Riesa, not only to survive, but eventually to thrive.  We owe you a debt of gratitude, Grandma.  Because of your dedication and intensive labor in those early days, all of us have been allowed to share in the joy of knowing and experiencing life with Riesa.
In reminiscing on those experiences that span several decades, I made some rather obvious observations that I think many of you will relate to based on your own experiences with her:
Riesa loved family.  Because Riesa was 7 years older than I, I don’t remember much about her early years.  In fact, my clearest memories originate sometime during her teen years.  Our family would make trips from Chicago to visit G’ma, G’dad, and Riesa and since we were coming from a distance, we would also stay in their home.  6 children – or when it was a holiday and ALL the cousins showed up, it could be as many as 12 children! – would invade her space…play with her toys…ride her bike…hijack her skateboard…monopolize her scooter…listen to her records…sleep in her bed…cover her bedroom floor with pallets…and all around disturb her normally peaceful world.  But I never remember feeling like we were an imposition on her.  I don’t remember her trying to keep us out of HER stuff.  Perhaps I was  young and clueless, but I’m pretty sure she WANTED us there!  She was amazingly accommodating and patient with all the disruption that accompanied our arrival and with the ensuing demand to share her stuff, her people, and her space.
One of my favorite memories from a time when we lived in their home,  is of her sitting for hours around the living room with my sisters and me as we thumbed through bridal magazines, each of us imagining our own special day yet to come.  I remember Grandma worrying that it might stir an expectation in Riesa of her own wedding day, which would never come to pass.  But she loved the beautiful gowns as much as we did and she dreamt right along with us.
Riesa loved music.  From the earliest days, it was clear that she had inherited her daddy’s love of music.  She spent hours sitting by her turntable playing her records.  I remember hearing many hymns, LOTS and LOTS and LOTS of Marcy, with a hearty dose of Phil & Lori thrown in…and she sang along with all of them.   Riesa had a remarkable capacity to memorize songs.
Riesa loved to write.  I never knew just *how* much until she lived in my home and I saw her sit for hours upon hours, filling page after page after page with words and numbers and sometimes shapes…but mostly words.    I couldn’t always decipher those words or her meaning, but that didn’t deter her.  The most common words were the names of people she loved and their ages or birth dates.  This is what she wrote in her notebooks, because this is what mattered to her because...
Riesa loved people.  Well…*most* people.  Everywhere she went, she endeared herself to people.  Years after high school ended, she could rifle through old school picturess and name every one of them and often add some personal detail about them.  She made friends at each church, school, workshop, residence…it didn’t matter…she made friends.  She always had her favorites too.  You considered yourself lucky if you made it into that category.    
Riesa loved to laugh…and she loved to make US laugh.  A lot.  She left us a host of Riesa-isms that have become permanently embedded in our family vocabulary.  My personal favorite conferred upon me:  “Your hips are too fat behind your back!”
She loved to be silly and she loved it even more when WE were silly.  Pam was one of those chosen favorites who could get her laughing so hard she could hardly catch her breath.
Riesa loved home.  She seemed to have a sense of place as important and she not only loved being at home, but she also loved being invited into other’s homes.   She had to adapt to a number of homes over the years…whether it was a new house in Festus after many years in Jackson, her first stint at My Place Residential, her time living in my home, or her final stay at My Place…Riesa adjusted and contented herself in each of those homes with an uncanny adaptability. 
Her way of expressing her contentment with a particular place was to say “This house is better.”  If she pronounced that over YOUR space, you knew she felt loved and welcomed and accepted and that she wanted to stay for as long as she could.  She might even be a little irritated when you forced her to go.
Riesa loved Jesus.  Another evidence of Grandma’s dedication was that Riesa memorized a lot of Scripture as a child as she worked her way through the Bible Memory Association program.   One of my great joys during her stay with me was praying Psalm 23 together and passing by her room to see her sitting in her bed with her Bible open as if she were reading it before she turned her lights out at night.   She couldn’t read it, but there was a sense that it mattered.
When her mother taught her the implications of John 14…that Grandmother, or Grandma Palmer, or Daddy, had gone to live with Jesus in his big beautiful house, she believed it.  Well…mostly. There was that one time when she was told that Grandmother went to live in Jesus’ house and she uttered what all of us *feel* sometimes at the loss of a loved one: “stupid Jesus”…and yet...many more times, she voiced her childlike faith in Jesus as she’d talk about these loved ones being in his “big beautiful house.”  
So…despite  doctors' early predictions, Riesa lived both long AND well.
In some ways, it’s almost impossible to believe that she is gone from us.  Some joys of this life have flown with her, but so has the worry of what might become of her as she aged…what measure of illness or pain she might have been called on to endure…and we can give thanks that her merciful Savior spared her from prolonged suffering, including the death of her dearest, Mother Shirley. 
When I’m able to lay aside the suddenness and shock of her absence, I am mostly consumed with thoughts of what Riesa might be experiencing in the presence of her Savior and what her life might look like at the Final Resurrection when body and soul are re-united in glory. 
I look forward to the day when I will share in resurrected life with Riesa without the limitations that plagued her in this life. 
I want to hear as she joins her voice with the hosts of heaven and all the Family of God in singing praise to that faithful Shepherd of Psalm 23. 
I can’t wait for that first conversation where she is unhindered by her ability to express freely all those words and thoughts she penned over the years. 
I eagerly await her participation in the Wedding Feast of the Lamb when she will have no regrets about the absence of married love in this life. 
But for now, along with her mother, I imagine Riesa walking – with a lightness in her step – through Jesus’ big, beautiful house saying with renewed vigor and unmitigated certainty: “THIS house is better.”

Friday, August 19, 2016

Holy Sonnet 1: Donne

by John Donne
Thou hast made me, and shall Thy work decay?
Repair me now, for now mine end doth haste;
I run to death, and Death meets me as fast,
And all my pleasures are like yesterday.
I dare not move my dim eyes any way;
Despair behind, and Death before doth cast
Such terror, and my feeble flesh doth waste
By sin in it, which it towards hell doth weigh.
Only Thou art above, and when towards Thee
By Thy leave I can look, I rise again;
But our old subtle foe so tempteth me,
That not one hour myself I can sustain.
Thy grace may wing me to prevent his art
And thou like adamant draw mine iron heart.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Cemetery or Sanctuary?

Today, I leave this place.
When I walked through the door three years ago with only my clothes and shoes in tow, I never imagined it would become anything like home.
My first night portended otherwise and is permanently seared into my conscience.  Courage gave way to uncertainty as I sat on the floor in a room that, despite the St. Louis heat, was decidedly cold and lifeless...devoid of memories.  Until that moment, I hadn't understood the power of Place and Memory.
For the first time in 18 years, my sons were laying their heads on pillows in a place where I was not.  That was the single haunting reality I could neither justify nor escape.  I wept for them.  I wept for me.  I wept for all the previous and ensuing sorrow.  There was more than enough sorrow to go around in those days.
Because I didn't want to disrupt their world even more, and because the external emptiness reflected my internal reality, I refused my sons' offers to take furniture from their house.  About a month in, they got real: "Mom, this place feels sad. Seeing you in an empty space and eating dinner on a blanket makes it hard to come here."
That rebuke snapped me out of my grief-induced lethargy.  My sons still needed a place that felt like home.  Maybe not The Home, but A Home.  I immediately set out to make it inviting.
For 3 years now we've been making memories here...lots of them.  Meals.  Formative conversations.  Games.  Friends.  Holidays.  My dearest friends have come too - we've shared food, wine, stories, joys, and sorrows here.  I've actually grown quite fond of the place.
It's a bit of graveyard though.  I showed up dragging a lot of already-dead things - my reputation, my dignity, my vision of who I was and what my life would look like.  I had to mourn these losses, lay them down, bury them one by one and walk away so I could live again...so my sons could live.
I carried other baggage too.  Things that needed to die: pride, old wounds, new wounds, anger, severed relationships, and loads and loads of shame.  There was  more than enough of that to go around in those days too.
Some of these things died a painfully slow, stubborn death, and not without oceans of tears and desperate pleas to God. 

Where are you?! What do you want from me?! Don't let me go. 

I'm exhausted from crying!  I'm wasting away! Don't let me go! 

Open my eyes.  Heal me!  Cleanse me!  Please don't let me go!! 

Teach me to forgive.  Soften my heart.  DON'T LET ME GO!
In that way, this cemetery also became a sanctuary because here, in this place, the Lord heard my cries.  He made himself known.  He rescued me.  He set my feet on a rock.  And he didn't let me go.  He's still healing, cleansing, teaching, and turning this heart of stone more and more into a heart of flesh. 
So here I am...moving again.  In this new place, my sons will once again lay their heads on pillows where I am.  This is a great mercy that brings unimaginable comfort.
I expect that in this new home there will be other burials and more resurrections.  We'll build new memories here and it too will become a cemetery-sanctuary.  I don't know exactly what that will look like, but there is one thing I DO know: HE WON'T LET US GO.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Peter Kreeft: Practical Theology

Peter Kreeft’s new book Practical Theologypromises “358 pieces of wisdom from Saint Thomas’s masterpiece the Summa, which are literally more valuable than all the kingdoms of this world because they will help you to attain ‘the one thing needful,’ the summum bonum or ‘the greatest good,’ the ultimate end and purpose and meaning of life.” Kreeft, a professor of philosophy at Boston College and the author of many books, presents “Spiritual Direction from Saint Thomas Aquinas” — in “an easily digestible sample” of Aquinas’s “distinctly religious wisdom.” He responds to questions here about it. — KJL

Kathryn Jean Lopez: Is your Practical Theology a self-help version of Saint Thomas Aquinas’s Summa? An executive summary for beginners? Is it just for beginners?

Peter KreeftPractical Theology is as far from self-help nonsense, i.e. pop psychology, as you can get. It’s theology, and it’s Aquinas, and it’s the Summa, for goodness’ sake. I have no idea what “an executive summary” is, but I’m quite sure this isn’t it. And it’s for everybody, therefore it’s for beginners. When it comes to God we’re all beginners, especially the ones who think they are experts. Only fools think they’re sages; sages know they’re fools. (P.S. Aquinas wrote the 4,000-page Summa “for beginners.” That was not satire. It’s really a very simple book.)

Lopez: Is theology ever practical, really?

Kreeft: Theology is always practical because nothing is more practical than living in reality, living in the real world, and God is the origin, center, end, and meaning of reality. If that’s not true, let’s be pagans, atheists, or TV executives.

Lopez: You say that “if our love is right, everything else will be right.” How does the Angelic Doctor propose that we get love right? Is he the love doctor, too?

Kreeft: Augustine wrote, “Amor meuspondus meum” — “my love is my weight,” my gravity, my destiny. How to get love right? Ask its inventor, origin, and standard, the God who is love. He told us in many ways: conscience, saints, Scripture, Church, above all Christ. Yes, he is the love doctor. And he’d tell a culture like ours that identifies that title with Ruth Westheimer that it is as right about this as it would be in identifying expertise on Einstein with Archie Bunker.

Lopez: What is an angelic doctor, anyway?

Kreeft: He’s called “the” (not “an”) angelic doctor because (a) he got the angels right, and, most especially, because (b) like an angel, he was remarkably free from lust, greed, and other foolish human passions.

Lopez: Why is Saint Thomas Aquinas such a big deal? And one of the best spiritual directors?

Kreeft: He’s big because he was very large, like G. K. Chesterton. His mind is big because he gives us “big pictures” all the time, not little crabbed clever pieces of “scholarship.” And he’s a great spiritual director because he has the personal virtues that takes: personal sanctity (love of God and His creation, especially human beings), brilliant insight into good and evil, humility and open-mindedness, absolute honesty, and the habit of saying everything as simply, clearly, and directly as possible.

Lopez: Unless you’re discerning a religious vocation, or deeply invested in Catholic apostolic work, the phrase “spiritual direction” may be foreign to a lot of Catholics, as a practical matter in their lives. Should it be an element of every Catholic’s life?

Kreeft: A Catholic is one who believes what the Catholic Church teaches. The Catholic Church teaches that the meaning of life is holiness, happiness, and heaven. Spiritual direction means help in that journey. If that’s practical only for priests or apostles, we laypeople can say, of the supreme wisdom, “The hell with it; it’s not for me.” It’s the other way round: The clergy are for the people, not vice versa. The pope is “the servant of the servants of God.”

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

A Great Light

We are in Madison Square Garden, a place synonymous with this city. This is the site of important athletic, artistic and musical events attracting people not only from this city, but from the whole world. In this place, which represents both the variety and the common interests of so many different people, we have listened to the words: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Is 9:1).

The people who walked – caught up in their activities and routines, amid their successes and failures, their worries and expectations – have seen a great light. The people who walked – with all their joys and hopes, their disappointments and regrets – have seen a great light.

In every age, the People of God are called to contemplate this light. A light for the nations, as the elderly Simeon joyfully expressed it. A light meant to shine on every corner of this city, on our fellow citizens, on every part of our lives.

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light”. One special quality of God’s people is their ability to see, to contemplate, even in “moments of darkness”, the light which Christ brings. God’s faithful people can see, discern and contemplate his living presence in the midst of life, in the midst of the city. Together with the prophet Isaiah, we can say: The people who walk, breathe and live in the midst of smog, have seen a great light, have experienced a breath of fresh air.

Living in a big city is not always easy. A multicultural context presents many complex challenges. Yet big cities are a reminder of the hidden riches present in our world: in the diversity of its cultures, traditions and historical experiences. In the variety of its languages, costumes and cuisine. Big cities bring together all the different ways which we human beings have discovered to express the meaning of life, wherever we may be.

But big cities also conceal the faces of all those people who don’t appear to belong, or are second class citizens. In big cities, beneath the roar of traffic, beneath “the rapid pace of change”, so many faces pass by unnoticed because they have no “right” to be there, no right to be part of the city. They are the foreigners, the children who go without schooling, those deprived of medical insurance, the homeless, the forgotten elderly. These people stand at the edges of our great avenues, in our streets, in deafening anonymity. They become part of an urban landscape which is more and more taken for granted, in our eyes, and especially in our hearts.

Knowing that Jesus still walks our streets, that he is part of the lives of his people, that he is involved with us in one vast history of salvation, fills us with hope. A hope which liberates us from the forces pushing us to isolation and lack of concern for the lives of others, for the life of our city. A hope which frees us from empty “connections”, from abstract analyses, or sensationalist routines. A hope which is unafraid of involvement, which acts as a leaven wherever we happen to live and work. A hope which makes us see, even in the midst of smog, the presence of God as he continues to walk the streets of our city.

What is it like, this light traveling through our streets? How do we encounter God, who lives with us amid the smog of our cities? How do we encounter Jesus, alive and at work in the daily life of our multicultural cities?

The prophet Isaiah can guide us in this process of “learning to see”. He presents Jesus to us as “Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace”. In this way, he introduces us to the life of the Son, so that his life can be our life.

Wonderful Counselor. The Gospels tell us how many people came up to Jesus to ask: “Master, what must we do?” The first thing that Jesus does in response is to propose, to encourage, to motivate. He keeps telling his disciples to go, to go out. He urges them to go out and meet others where they really are, not where we think they should be. Go out, again and again, go out without fear, without hesitation. Go out and proclaim this joy which is for all the people.

The Mighty God. In Jesus, God himself became Emmanuel, God-with-us, the God who walks alongside us, who gets involved in our lives, in our homes, in the midst of our “pots and pans”, as Saint Teresa of Jesus liked to say.

The Everlasting Father. No one or anything can separate us from his Love. Go out and proclaim, go out and show that God is in your midst as a merciful Father who himself goes out, morning and evening, to see if his son has returned home and, as soon as he sees him coming, runs out to embrace him. An embrace which wants to take up, purify and elevate the dignity of his children. A Father who, in his embrace, is “glad tidings to the poor, healing to the afflicted, liberty to captives, comfort to those who mourn” (Is 61:1-2).

Prince of Peace. Go out to others and share the good news that God, our Father, walks at our side. He frees us from anonymity, from a life of emptiness and selfishness, and brings us to the school of encounter. He removes us from the fray of competition and self-absorption, and he opens before us the path of peace. That peace which is born of accepting others, that peace which fills our hearts whenever we look upon those in need as our brothers and sisters.

God is living in our cities. The Church is living in our cities, and she wants to be like yeast in the dough. She wants to relate to everyone, to stand at everyone’s side, as she proclaims the marvels of the Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Eternal Father, the Prince of Peace.

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light." And we ourselves are witnesses of that light.

--Pope Francis Sermon

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Learning In War Time: CS Lewis

Learning in War-Time 
A sermon preached in the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Oxford,Autumn, 1939  

A University is a society for the pursuit of learning. As students, you will be expected to make yourselves, or to start making yourselves, into what the Middle Ages called clerks: into philosophers, scientists, scholars, critics, or historians. And at first sight this seems to be an odd thing to do during a great war. What is the use of beginning a task which we have so little chance of finishing? Or, even if we ourselves should happen not to be interrupted by death or military service, why should we -- indeed how can we -- continue to take an interest in these placid occupations when the lives of our friends and the liberties of Europe are in the balance? Is it not like fiddling while Rome burns?

Now it seems to me that we shall not be able to answer these questions until we have put them by the side of certain other questions which every Christian ought to have asked himself in peace-time. I spoke just now of fiddling while Rome burns. But to a Christian, the true tragedy of Nero must be not that he fiddles while the city was on fire, but that he fiddles on the brink of hell. You must forgive me for the crude monosyllable. I know that many wiser and better Christians than I in these days do not like to mention heaven and hell, even in a pulpit. I know, too, that nearly all the references to this subject in the New Testament come from a single source. But then that source is Our Lord Himself. People will tell you it is St. Paul, but that is untrue. These overwhelming doctrines are dominical. They are not really removable from the teaching of Christ or of His Church. If we do not believe them, our presence in this church is great tomfoolery. If we do, we must sometime overcome our spiritual prudery and mention them. The moment we do so we can see that every Christian who comes to a university must at all times face a question compared with which the questions raised by the war are relatively unimportant. He must ask himself how it is right, or even psychologically possible, for creatures who are every moment advancing either to heaven or to hell, to spend any fraction of the little time allowed them in this world on such comparative trivialities as literature or art, mathematics or biology. If human culture can stand up to that, it can stand up to anything. 
To admit that we can retain our interest in learning under the shadow of these eternal issues, but not under the shadow of a European war, would be to admit that our ears are closed to the voice of reason and very wide open to the voice of our nerves and our mass emotions.  This indeed is the case with most of us: certainly with me. 

For that reason I think it important to try to see the present calamity in a true perspective: the war creates no absolutely new situation, it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself. If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure, the search would never have begun. 

We are mistaken when we compare war with "normal life". Life has never been normal. Even those periods which we think most tranquil, like the nineteenth century, turn out, on closer inspection, to be full of cries, alarms, difficulties, emergencies. Plausible reasons have never been lacking for putting off all merely cultural activities until some imminent danger has been averted or some crying injustice put right.

But humanity long ago chose to neglect those plausible reasons. They wanted knowledge and beauty now, and would not wait for the suitable moment that never come. Periclean Athens leaves us not only the Parthenon but, significantly, the Funeral Oration. The insects have chosen a different line: they have sought first the material welfare and security of the hive, and presumably they have their reward. Men are different. They propound mathematical theorems in beleaguered cities, conduct metaphysical arguments in condemned cells, make jokes on scaffold, discuss the last new poem while advancing to the walls of Quebec, and comb their hair at Thermopylae. This is not panache; it is our nature.

But since we are fallen creatures, the fact that this is now our nature would not, by itself, prove that it is rational or right. We have to inquire whether there is really any legitimate place for the activities of the scholar in a world such as this. That is, we have always to answer the question: "How can you be so frivolous and selfish as to think about anything but the salvation of human souls?" and we have, at the moment, to answer the additional question, "How can you be so frivolous and selfish as to think of anything but the war?" Now part of our answer will be the same for both questions. The one implies that our life can, and ought, to become exclusively and explicitly religious: the other, that it can and ought to become exclusively national. I believe that our whole life can, and indeed must, become religious in a sense to be explained later. 

But if it is meant that all our activities are to be of the kind that can be recognized as "sacred" and ties are to be of the kind that can be recognized as "sacred" and opposed to "secular" then I would give a single reply to both my imaginary assailants. I would say, "Whether it ought to happen or not, the thing you are recommending is not going to happen." 

Before I became a Christian I do not think I fully realized that one's life, after conversion, would inevitably consist in doing most of the same things one had been doing before: one hopes, in a new spirit, but still the same things. Before I went to the last war, I certainly expected that my life in the trenches would, in some mysterious sense, be all war. In fact, I found that the nearer you got to the front line the less everyone spoke and thought of the allied cause and the progress of the campaign; and I am pleased to find that Tolstoy, in the greatest war book ever written, records the same thing -- and so, in its own way, does the Iliad. Neither conversion nor enlistment in the army is really going to obliterate our human life. Christians and solders are still men: the infidel's idea of a religious life, and the civilian's idea of active service, are fantastic. If you attempted, in either case, to suspend your whole intellectual and aesthetic activity, you would only succeed in substituting a worse cultural life for a better. You are not, in fact, going to read nothing, either in the Church or in the line: if you don't read good books you will read bad ones. If you don't go on thinking rationally, you will think irrationally. If you reject aesthetic satisfactions you will fall into sensual satisfactions. There is therefore this analogy between the claims of our religion and the claims of the war: neither of them for most of us, will simply cancel or remove from the slate the merely human life which we were leading before we entered them. But they will operate in this way for different reasons.

The war will fail to absorb our whole attention because it is a finite object, and therefore intrinsically unfitted to support the whole attention of a human soul. In order to avoid misunderstanding I must here make a few distinctions. I believe our cause to be, as human causes go, very righteous, and I therefore believe it to be a duty to participate in this war. And every duty is a religious duty, and our obligation to perform every duty is therefore absolute. Thus we may have a duty to rescue a drowning man, and perhaps, if we live on a dangerous coast, to learn life-saving so as to be ready for any drowning man when he turns up. It may be our duty to lose our own lives in saving him. But if anyone devoted himself to life-saving in the sense of giving it his total attention --so that he thought and spoke of nothing else and demanded the cessation of all other human activities until everyone had learned to swim -- he would be a monomaniac. The rescue of drowning men is, then a duty worth dying for, but not worth living for. It seems to me that all political duties (among which I include military duties) are of this kind. A man may have to die for our country: but no man must, in any exclusive sense, live for his country. He who surrenders himself without reservation to the temporal claims of a nation, or a party, or a class is rendering to Caesar that which, of all things, most emphatically belongs to God: himself. 

It is for a very different reason that religion cannot occupy the whole of life in the sense of excluding all our natural activities. For, of course, in some sense, it must occupy the whole of life. There is no question of a compromise between the claims of God and the claims of culture, or politics, or anything else. God's claim is infinite and inexorable. You can refuse it: or you can begin to try to grant it. There is no middle way. Yet in spite of this it is clear that Christianity does not exclude any of the ordinary human activities. St. Paul tells people to get on with their jobs. He even assumes that Christians may go to dinner parties, and, what is more, dinner parties given by pagans. Our Lord attends a wedding and provides miraculous wine. Under the aegis of His Church, and in the most Christian ages, learning and the arts flourish. The solution of this paradox is, of course, well known to you. "Whether ye eat or drink or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God." All our merely natural activities will be accepted, if they are offered to God, even the humblest: and all of them, even the noblest, will be sinful if they are not. Christianity does not simply replace our natural life and substitute a new one: it is rather a new organization which exploits, to its own supernatural ends, these natural materials. No doubt, in a given situation, it demands the surrender of some, or all, our merely human pursuits: it is better to be saved with one eye, than, having two, to be cast into Gehanna. But it does this, in a sense, per accidens -- because, in those special circumstances, it has ceased to be possible to practice this or that activity to the glory of God. There is no essential quarrel between the spiritual life and the human activities as such. Thus the omnipresence of obedience to God in a Christian's life is, in a way, analogous to the omnipresence of God in space. God does not fill space as a body fills it, in the sense that parts of Him are in different parts of space, excluding other object from them. Yet He is everywhere -- totally present at every point of space --according to good theologians.  

We are now in a position to answer the view that human culture is an inexcusable frivolity on the part of creatures loaded with such awful responsibilities as we. I reject at once an idea which lingers in the mind of some modern people that cultural activities are in their own right spiritual  and meritorious -- as though scholars and poets were intrinsically more pleasing to God than scavengers and bootblacks. I think it was Matthew Arnold who first used the English word spiritual in the sense of the German geistlich, and so inaugurated this most dangerous and most anti-Christian error. Let us clear it forever from our minds.The work of a Beethoven, and the work of a charwoman, become spiritual on precisely the same condition, that of being offered to God, of being done humbly "as to the Lord". This does not, of course, mean that it is for anyone a mere toss-up whether he should sweep rooms or compose symphonies. A mole must dig to the glory of God and a cock must crow. We are members of one body, but differentiated members, each with his own vocation. A man's upbringing, his talents, his circumstances, are usually a tolerable index of his vocation. If our parents have sent us to Oxford, if our country allows us to remain there, this is prima facie evidence that the life which we, at any rate, can best lead to the glory of God at present is the learned life.  By leading that life to the glory of God I do not, of course, mean any attempt to make our intellectual inquiries work out to edifying conclusions. That would be, as Bacon says, to offer to the author of truth the unclean sacrifice of a lie. I mean the pursuit of knowledge and beauty, in a sense, for their own sake, but in a sense which does not exclude their being for God's sake. An appetite for these things exists in the human mind, and God makes no appetite in vain. We can therefore pursue knowledge as such, and beauty as such, in the sure confidence that by so doing we are either advancing to the vision of God ourselves or indirectly helping others to do so. Humility, no less than the appetite, encourages us to concentrate simply on the knowledge or the beauty, not too much concerning ourselves with their ultimate relevance to the vision of God. That relevance may not be intended for us but for our betters -- for men who come after and find the spiritual significance of what we dug out in blind and humble obedience to our vocation. This is the teleological argument that the existence of the impulse and the faculty prove that they must have a proper function in God's scheme -- the argument by which Thomas Aquinas probes that sexuality would have existed even without the Fall. The soundness of the argument, as regards culture, is proved by experience. The intellectual life is not the only road to God, nor the safest, but we find it to be *a* road, and it may be the appointed road for us. Of course it will be so only so long as we keep the impulse pure and disinterested. That is the great difficulty. As the author of the Theologia Germanicai says, we may come to love knowledge -- our knowing -- more than the thing known: to delight not in the exercise of our talents but in the fact that they are ours, or even in the reputation they bring us. Every success in the scholar's life increases this danger. If it becomes irresistible, he must give up his scholarly work. The time for plucking our the right eye has arrived.  That is the essential nature of the learned life as I see it. But it has indirect values which are especially important to-day. If all the world were Christian, it might not matter if all the world were uneducated. But, as it is, a cultural life will exist outside the Church whether it exists inside or not. To be ignorant and simple now -- not to be able to meet the enemies on their own ground -- would be to throw down our weapons, and to betray our uneducated brethren who have, under God, no defense but us against the intellectual attacks of the heathen. Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered. The cool intellect must work not only against cool intellect on the other side, but against the muddy heathen mysticisms which deny intellect altogether.  Most of all, perhaps we need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion. A man who has lived in many place is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village: the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune form the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age. 

The learned life then is, for some, a duty. At the moment, it looks as if it were *your* duty. I am well aware that there may seem to be an almost comic discrepancy between the high issues we have been considering and the immediate task you may be set down to, such as Anglo-Saxon sound laws or chemical formulae. But there is a similar shock awaiting us in every vocation -- a young priest finds himself involved in choir treats and a young subaltern in accounting for pots of jam. It is well that it should be so. It weeds out the vain, windy people and keeps in those who are both humble and tough. On that kind of difficulty we need waste no sympathy.  But the peculiar difficulty imposed on you by the war is another matter: and of it I would again repeat, what I have been saying in one form or another ever since I started -- do not let your nerves and emotions lead you into thinking your present predicament more abnormal than it really is.

Perhaps it may be useful to mention the three mental exercises which may serve as defenses against the three enemies which war raises up against the scholar. The first enemy is excitement -- the tendency to think and feel about the war when we had intended to think about our work. The best defense is a recognition that in this, as in everything else, the war has not really raised up a new enemy but only aggravated an old one. There are always plenty of rivals to our work. We are always falling in love or quarreling, looking for jobs or fearing to lose them, getting ill and recovering, following public affairs. If we let ourselves, we shall always be waiting for some distraction or other to end before we can really get down to our work. The only people who achieve much are those who want knowledge so badly that they seek it while the conditions are still unfavorable. Favourable conditions never come. There are, of course, moments when the pressure of the excitement is so great that any superhuman self-control could not resist it. They come both in war and peace. We must do the best we can. 

The second enemy is frustration -- the feeling that we shall not have time to finish. If I say to you that no one has time to finish, that the longest human life leaves a man, in any branch of learning, a beginner, I shall seem to you to be saying something quite academic and theoretical. You would be surprised if you knew how soon one begins to feel the shortness of the tether: of how many things, even in middle life, we have to say "No time for that", "Too late now", and "Not for me". But Nature herself forbids you to share that experience. A more Christian attitude, which can be attained at any age is that of leaving futurity in God's hands. We may as well, for God will certainly retain it whether we leave it to Him or not. Never, in peace or war, commit your virtue or your happiness to the future. Happy work is best done by the man who take his long-term plans somewhat lightly and woks from moment to moment "as to the Lord". It is only our daily bread that we are encourage to ask for. The present is the only time in which any duty can be done or any grace received. 

The third enemy is fear. War threatens us with death and pain. No man -- and specially no Christian who remembers Gethsemane -- need try to attain a stoic indifference about these things: but we can guard against the illusions of the imagination. We think of the streets of Warsaw and contrast the deaths there suffered with an abstraction called Life. But there is no question of death or life for any of us; only a question of this death or of that -- of a machine gun bullet now or a cancer forty years later. What does war do to death? It certainly does not make it more frequent; 100 per cent of us die, and the percentage cannot be increased. It puts several  deaths earlier; but I hardly suppose that that is what we fear. Certainly when the moment comes, it will make little difference how many years we have behind us. Does it increase our chance of a painful death? I doubt it. As far as I can find out, what we call natural death is usually preceded by suffering; and a battlefield is one of the very few places where one has a reasonable prospect of dying with no pain at all. Does it decrease our chances of dying at peace with God? I cannot believe it. If active service does not persuade a man to prepare for death, what conceivable concatenation of circumstance would? Yet war does do something to death. It forces us to remember it. The only reason why the cancer at sixty or the paralysis at seventy-five do not bother us is that we forget them. War makes death real to us: and that would have been regarded as one of its blessings by most of the great Christians of the past. They thought it good for us to be always aware of our mortality. I am inclined to think they were right.  All the animal life in us, all schemes of happiness that centered in this world, were always doomed to a final frustration. In ordinary times only a wise man can realize it. Now the stupidest of us know. We see unmistakable the sort of universe in which we have all along been living, and must come to terms with it. If we had foolish un-Christian hopes about human culture, they are now shattered. If we thought we were building up a heaven on earth, if we looked for something that would turn the present world from a place of pilgrimage into a permanent city satisfying the soul of man, we are disillusioned, and not a moment too soon. But if we thought that for some souls, and at some times, the life of learning, humbly offered to God, was, in its own small way, one of the appointed approaches to the Divine reality and the Divine beauty which we hope to enjoy hereafter, we can think so still.