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Posts Tagged ‘spiritual writing’

Just about a year ago I attended the Association of College & Research Libraries conference in Cleveland and learned, at a free breakfast about using online sources sponsored by a vendor, about A. Philip Randolph. Prior to that, I’d never heard of him, even though he was a significant figure in American history, a labor leader, publisher who founded an important literary and political journal (The Messenger), and major organizer of the March on Washington. Martin Luther King, Jr., honored Randolph as “truly the Dean of Negro leaders.”  We should all question why American history books tend to leave Randolph out (spoiler alert: besides being black, he was a socialist).

The book I finished last night is by another major figure in American history who most of you won’t have heard of: Howard Thurman. He was ten years younger than Randolph, and also became an advisor to MLK. Thurman was a pastor, a professor of religion at several prominent universities, and an influential thinker and speaker.

Jesus and the Disinherited, one of Thurman’s best known books, is also one of The Computer Scientist’s favorite books, and our son also recommended it to me. A few weeks ago, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry quoted from it during his Easter sermon, and that reminded me that I had been meaning to read it. It’s taken me since Easter week to finish, even though it’s a short book. Partially because mid-June is looming (when my master’s dissertation is due), but mainly because it’s an intellectually and spiritually challenging book.

Thurman is very clear; that’s not the hard part. The hard part is the truths the reader has to face. Such as: “The basic fact is that Christianity as it was born in the mind of this Jewish teacher and thinker appears as a technique of survival for the oppressed. That it became, through the intervening years, a religion of the powerful and dominant, used sometimes as an instrument of oppression, must not tempt us into believing that it was thus in the mind and life of Jesus. . . . For years it has been a part of my own quest so to understand the religion of Jesus that interest in his way of life could be developed and sustained by intelligent men and women who were at the same time victimized by the Christian Church’s betrayal of his faith.”

The church had become a tool of oppression, one that perpetuated (and indeed still does in some places — maybe in all places) institutionalized racism, one that offered little to the poor beyond words, one that did not practice what it taught. And yet, Thurman describes a “new courage, fearlessness, and power” that comes from someone knowing they are “a child of God.” That is difficult stuff, all of it. That the church failed the disinherited, and yet, God worked anyway. That Thurman was faithful — so many were faithful — in spite of the church. That he then dedicated his life to helping others regain their own faith.

It gets harder. Thurman addresses fear, deception, and hate before closing with the very difficult work of love, about which he says, “It is the act of inner authority, well within reach of everyone . . . . merely preaching love of one’s enemies or exhortations — however high and holy — cannot, in the last analysis, accomplish this result. At the center of the attitude is a core of painstaking discipline . . . .” If you’ve ever tried to love your “enemy” — or just someone who really, really bugs you, this will ring painfully true.

I really can’t do this book justice in a few paragraphs. You should read it. Just be prepared to read slowly. It’s a good book for these weird times, because even though it’s hard, Thurman saw that real fellowship, based on equity and the kind of just love that “is a common sharing of mutual worth and value” is the only way forward. And it seems to me that’s what we need, in order to pull ourselves out of the mire we find ourselves in.

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I lent The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel, to the former Teen the Elder and borrowed it back when I visited him recently. He kindly left me some margin notes, as did the first owner of the book! I found this book on the sale shelves at Adelynrood last summer.

In the introduction, Heschel’s daughter, Susannah, a scholar in her own right, explains that for her father, the Sabbath, in the sense of “holiness in time” defined Judaism. Heschel examines our definitions of time and space, of our identity within these concepts, and of the philosophical understanding of goodness versus the religious understanding of holiness. Yet for all these nuanced ideas, The Sabbath is a quick, and in many ways, a simple read.

It’s particularly poignant to think about the time when Heschel wrote as the backdrop of his thinking. This book was published in 1951 when the full revelation of the extent of the Holocaust was still fairly fresh. In the chapter, “A Palace In Time,” Heschel writes, “Six days a week we wrestle with the world, wringing profit from the earth; on the Sabbath we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in the soul.” Despite the incredible horrors perpetrated on the Jewish people only a few years earlier, Heschel focuses on the eternal, and celebrates the gift of a day set apart for its eternal peace.

I see that contrast in this passage: “But the Sabbath as experienced by man cannot survive in exile, a lonely stranger among days of profanity. It needs the profanity of all other days . . . . For the Sabbath is the counterpoint of living; the melody sustained throughout all agitations and vicissitudes which menace our conscience; our awareness of God’s presence in the world.” The Sabbath brings us back to our being what we are meant to be — God’s people. Or, as Heschel says, much more beautifully, “On the Sabbath it is given to us to share in the holiness that is in the heart of time.”

Heschel’s observations of human weakness also remind readers that the problems of the world are not new or unique to our present anxious time:

“Nothing is as hard to suppress as the will to be a slave to one’s own pettiness. Gallantly, ceaselessly, quietly, man must fight for inner liberty.  Inner liberty depends upon being exempt from domination of things as well as from domination of people. There are many who have acquired a high degree of political and social liberty, but only very few are not enslaved to things. This is our constant problem — how to live with people and remain free, how to live with things and remain independent.”

Really, that about sums it up!

I’m using a guide to Wendell Berry’s Sabbath poetry as part of my Lent reading this year, which is what reminded me that I’ve been wanting to read The Sabbath. The challenge of setting aside and honoring time, whether a day or part of several days, to remember ourselves does not come naturally in this world. I’ve tried to observe the sabbath in various ways over the years, mainly as a time to slow down, recharge, and be ready to bring my best self to the rest of the week. But I think the sense of sabbath that Heschel teaches, as “the presence of God in the world, open to the soul of man,” and as a “foretaste” of eternity, that “raises our minds above accustomed thoughts” goes far deeper than a mere day of rest.

I am going to try to think of sabbath as “Spirit in the form of time” as Heschel affirms, and to rest in the sabbath rather than on the sabbath.

 

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Now you know what has taken me so long to post — The Seven Storey Mountain: an Autobiography of Faith is a dense 462 pages. Thomas Merton is challenging to read, in my experience, but I had only tried to read his later work on nonviolence. He was a brilliant writer and scholar, and I didn’t realize until I read The Seven Storey Mountain that he was also probably good company.

In fact, he led what could be characterized as a “charmed life” when he was young, although he suffered the loss of his mother when he was a boy and his father when he was still a very young man. His family was well off enough that his material wants, education, travel, etc. were well provided for. But I wondered as I read if his lack of stability — his artist father moved him around a good bit — and the early deaths of his parents, especially his mother, might have led both to his endless pursuit of fun as a young man and his endless pursuit of God later on.

That’s an oversimplification, of course. But Merton alludes to a fair bit of carousing, and also to several times in his life when he was struck by what he refers to as “supernatural” sensations that bring him a great sense of peace. When he finally feels called to convert to Catholicism, he finds, that he is being called to be closer to God: “For now I had entered into the everlasting movement of that gravitation which is the very life and spirit of God: God’s own gravitation towards the depth of His own infinite nature, His goodness without end. And God, that center Who is everywhere, and whose circumference is nowhere, finding me, through incorporation with Christ, incorporated into this immense and tremendous gravitational movement which is love, which is the Holy Spirit, loved me.”

Merton is pulled in, although he continues to carouse and overwork and struggle to find out what he should do, and all of this is happening as the world is about to go to war (WWII). As he struggles to determine his path and discusses the coming war, Merton begins to consider that maybe he should be a priest. When he starts thinking he has a vocation, Merton finds even greater peace: “The life of grace had at last, it seemed, become constant, permanent. Weak and without strength as I was, I was nevertheless walking in the way that was liberty and life.”

In a way it’s comforting reading about his struggles — even as he is circling slowly closer to the life he’s called to, he does silly things (one New Year’s Eve he for some reason, while drunk, throws a can of pineapple juice at a light post, for example), loses his way, feels inadequate, wanders from opportunity to opportunity, and struggles to understand what he will become. And this is Thomas Merton, who we modern readers know will become one of the most prominent and influential writers of the 20th century, a person whose conscience fueled writing about civil rights and war, and whose deeply convicted spiritual writing, has inspired Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

The Seven Storey Mountain is long, and difficult in places (Merton wrote this when it was normal for Catholics to be dismissive of other Christian denominations, for example), and you may find yourself urging Merton along, but it’s packed densely with insights into growing up, becoming an adult, understanding one’s self, learning to be a good friend and family member, finding a vocation, living in a troubling and troubled world, and growing close to God. It’s a book I’m still digesting, and one I’ll probably return to. A deeply intriguing and important read.

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I’d read parts of Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation by Parker Palmer with my student success class last spring in the modules on vocation, specifically the chapter called “Now I Become Myself.” My students were impressed with Palmer’s wisdom in statements such as “What a long time it can take to become the person one has always been!” and “Vocation does not come from a voice ‘out there’ calling me to become something I am not. It comes from a voice ‘in here’ calling me to be the person I was born to be, to fulfill the original selfhood given me at birth by God.”

Around the time I used this with my class, a friend told me this is a favorite book of his, so I intended to give it a full reading. I had actually checked it out of the library once before and had been too busy to read it. The same thing happened over the summer. This time I swore I’d read it all the way through and made it my “lunch book” — keeping it at work and reading in the sun or in my office each day after I ate.

How glad I am that I kept trying. Palmer’s wisdom is humble and humane and true. He generously shares his own missteps and fears in the service of helping readers avoid their own, or embrace them as the case may be:  “Here, I think, is another clue to finding true self and vocation: we must withdraw the negative projections we make on people and situations — projections that serve mainly to mask our fears about ourselves — and acknowledge and embrace our own liabilities and limits.” Yep. Ouch. Another gem: ” . . . there is as much guidance in what does not and cannot happen in my life as there is in what can and does — maybe more.” Not something that’s easy to accept.

But this isn’t just a book about seeking one’s vocation. Palmer writes searingly about his descent into depression and his way back to wholeness: “One begins the slow walk back to health by choosing each day things that enliven one’s selfhood and resisting things that do not.” And acknowledges how painful, slow, and difficult this is: “Depression is the ultimate state of disconnection — it deprives one of the relatedness that is the lifeline of every living being.”

He also expounds on leadership: “These leaders possess a gift available to all who take an inner journey: the knowledge that identity does not depend on the role we play or the power it gives us over others. It depends only on the simple fact that we are children of God, valued in and for ourselves.” And extolls the benefits of “inner work . . . like journaling, reflective reading, spiritual friendship, meditation, and prayer” and the importance of community: “Community doesn’t just create abundance — community is abundance. If we could learn that equation from the world of nature, the human world might be transformed.”

In these times this passage will be one I return to frequently: “‘Be not afraid’ does not mean we cannot have fear. Everyone has fear, and people who embrace the call to leadership often find fear abounding. Instead the words say we do not need to be the fear we have. We do not have to lead from a place of fear, thereby engendering a world in which fear is multiplied.” Amen.

This is a brief book, around 100 pages, and small enough to fit easily in a coat pocket or purse or desk drawer. It merits reading and re-reading, and inwardly digesting. It would be a great book to journal with, or to discuss in a small group.

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