Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Throwing Things Together

This Christmas is the quietest I have had in years, thank God. Somehow, I find myself with a few minutes to reflect, even to write here. And yet, I find myself thinking about unease, disorder, and confusion. I find myself thinking about Mary.

Gazing on the creche and on the beautiful images of the Madonna filling my home, it's easy to forget how unnerving the story of Jesus' birthand the experience of the holy familyis. You know the details. This young woman and her new husband must leave their home for difficult and dangerous travel. They are displaced people, homeless at least temporarily, in a situation that would feel to most of us very much like "the edge." Their newborn is laid in a feeding trough, and fearful, wondrous announcements are made.

The angels have only recently gone away and the shepherd have only just departed when we are given that beautiful old description: Mary "kept all these things and pondered them in her heart." But what does this mean, exactly? The English word "ponder" offers, at first hearing, a pervading sense of calm. Etymologically, it has to do with feeling the weight of something, and that is something we usually do slowly and carefully. Mary seems, in other words, like an almost unworldly island of calm.

The original Greek has other connotations, though. The word translated as "ponder" is symballo, a word that does not evoke stillness and simplicity, but multiplicity and disarray. Literally, it means "to piece together" or even "to throw together." It occurs only a half dozen times in the New Testament, all in the first chapters of Luke, with their collection of wondrous and unnerving events.

Symballo is, it seems to me, in a certain way, quintessential mother's work. It is gathering up and holding close. It is picking up the pieces, stitching and folding and stirring together. Perhaps it is appropriate that the Mother of God took it up in her very first days as a mother. But mothers know the truth: whenever any of us take up this work of collecting up all that is scattered around us, we are re-collecting ourselves, as well.

This Christmas, so many of us are ill or ill at ease or jumbled. So many feel displaced or broken or  brokenhearted. But if, in seeking the wonder of Christmas, we feel less like an island of calm and more like we are throwing things together in our hearts, at least we are not alone. The real work of pondering is the work of the first Christmas, as well as ours.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Personal and Political

Not long ago, Kate Blanchard, professor of religious studies at Alma College, published an essay entitled "My Two Abortions," which follows an old feminist dictum: the personal is political. The Huffington Post piece is gripping in its candor about two very personal moments, each of which resulted in the end of a pregnancy: first, surgery to address an ectopic pregnancy; and second, labor artificially induced in order to give birth to a fetus who had already died in utero. These experiences, the author argues, yield some important insights strengthening pro-choice convictions.

As it happens, I count Kate as a friend. (She and I share the peculiar bond that can only exist among those who have survived graduate school together.) For me, our friendship was only strengthened by the fact that she reached out to me personally after penning this piece, fearing that I might be offended. Kate knows, after all, that I have some strong pro-life convictions. She not only took the time to let me know that she cared about my reaction, but she thanked me—as she had already done long ago—for the way I expressed concern for her during the first of the experiences she describes in her piece. Friends, if you don't hear anything else in this essay, please hear me say this: it is this kind of decent, human interaction that our public debates are too often painfully lacking.

The claims of the piece, though, deserve engagement. First, Kate argues, her experiences create a very personal connection to the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar in Ireland last month. Having lived through her own “abortions,” Kate explains, she could say that "there but for the grace of God go I." Further, she voices vicarious anger on behalf of Halappanavar, since Kate believes that it was “self-righteous” pro-life convictions that resulted in her needless death.

Second, Kate notes the way in which even Christian friends reacted at each of the moments she describes in her own life. Given that they did not, for example, offer to plan a memorial service for the baby lost in the ectopic pregnancy, she believes that they revealed their true conviction: her loss simply did not involve something equivalent to a “human life.” In the end, Kate does not blame them for this. She just wishes they could admit it.

I have just a few thoughts to offer here, addressed to each of these conclusions.

First is the claim about pro-life instincts. Of course, I was not privy to all the conversations in Kate’s life, so I can’t speak about them. I do know, however, that in the pro-life circles to which I belong, the loss of unborn children is often, in fact, mourned quite deeply. We do understand ourselves to have lost a human life. Parents often name their babies. We part with small bodies respectfully. Important or difficult dates are remembered in prayer. No one tells mothers or fathers how they should feel; no one requires a mother to grieve in any particular way. In fact, at least in my experience, the whole thing is generally pretty free of emotional requirements or sentimental overlay. It is not, however, underestimated. 

It is true that the death of a fetus at six week's gestation may be dealt with differently than the death of a newborn. But the death of a newborn is also often dealt with differently than that of a teenager killed in a car accident. There are many issues at play, and these differences do not necessarily indicate that we consider the newborn and the teenager to be a human lifeand the fetus to be something else.

In the specific situation Kate describes, I wonder if those around her may have faced a common conundrum. In these difficult days, when the status of unborn children is such a contentious issue, we often do not know at all what to say to one another when these children die. It certainly is not the right moment for pro-lifers to preach pro-life convictions, and so I—and many others I know—do our best to follow the cues of the mother and father themselves. If they mourn, we mourn with them. If they are stonefaced, we offer briefly our hope that they recover quickly. If we can’t quite figure what they feel, we are, frankly, at a loss. I can say that I feel very strongly about what we should not do: offer to plan a memorial service for someone else’s baby.

In fact, if the personal is political, maybe it is worth it to say that I myself have the experience of losing more than one child, barely past conception. I do count myself the mother of those children, and I do mourn their loss—sometimes quite unexpectedly. Even in this tell-all age, I do not speak in detail, publicly, about these losses, and I won’t do that here, either. The reason for my silence, though, is not some fatal flaw in my pro-life convictions. In fact—ironically enough—my reluctance has in part to do with my belief that, in the acrimony of current debates, some folks might minimize that loss and ridicule that grief. Interpreting silence, it's good to remember, is tricky.

Surely the most important element of Kate’s essay, though, has to do with the death of Savita Halappanavar, and its implications. Here, especially, I want to note what seem to me to be two problems in the way Kate links her experiences to this case. First is that neither of the decisions Kate made—one that ended an ectopic pregnancy or one that induced labor after the fetus had already died—should be understood as opposed to pro-life Catholic teaching. In fact, neither should be understood as an abortion at all. Kate implies that she was very lucky to have lived in a country that allows abortions, but the fact of the matter is that she could have received exactly the same medical care in Ireland
—or in any Catholic hospital here in the U.S.

Most importantly, there is simply no clear evidence that Halappanavar’s terrible death, either, had anything at all to do with Ireland's restriction of abortion. Halappanavar was suffering from a condition called septicaemia, a condition that would not have been ameliorated by an abortion. Just a few days after her initial reporting of the story, the lead reporter herself allowed that "the fact that Savita had been refused a termination was a factor in her death has yet to be established." Dr. Hema Divakar, president-elect of the Federation of Obstetric and Gynaecological Societies of India has taken a stronger position: "Even if the law permitted it, it is not as if her life would have been saved because of termination." Dr. James Clair, microbiologist has offered an alternate explanation, suggesting that "the problem was an unforeseen... infection rather than an issue of obstetric mishandling." 

Catholic teaching not only allows for, but demands, medical intervention to save the life of an expectant mother. It is true that acting on a commitment to both mother and baby can, in a few cases, be complicated and difficult. It appears that in Halappanavar’s case, though, doctor may simply have been unable successfully to intervene. In any case, it is worth it to learn more before using this case to get traction in the pro-life / pro-choice debates.

The experiences that Kate describes in her essay were painful, on more level than one. I wish now, as I wished then, that she might somehow have been spared them altogether. She survived, though—and thrived. My own conviction continue to be that protecting and caring for all human life is the surest route to the same outcome for other mothers, and for their children.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Laborious Theology

Here, a final look at the question I've posed: what would it mean for theologians to learn from the Cistercian commitment to an "ordinary, obscure, and laborious" life? In this third meditation, specifically, how (and why?) might theologians seek to be "laborious"?

Perhaps we should admit at the beginning that there hardly seems to be a need to address this at all. Despite the continued perceptions that those involved in study and teaching aren't "really working," most of the theologians I know are incredibly busy. Class preparation, reading, writing, meetings with professors, meetings with students, job applications, tenure applications, work connected with conferences and the larger guild, email, committee meetings, collaborations of various forms, Facebook, and a thousand other projects—almost all of them very worthwhile. I myself have now begun to participate in the following ritual of greeting: "How are you?" "Busy!" "Right!" [exchange of wan, knowing smiles]

There is only one problem here. The Cistercians have not urged us to be "busy," but rather to be "laborious." And discerning the distinction between the two makes all the difference. Great spiritual masters have long spoken of simplicity, focus, an inner unity of purpose that marks the movement toward holiness. It is, in other words, the very opposite of distractedness, dividedness, and confusion. It is the opposite of "busy."

This is not to say, of course, that the one who labors does so effortlessly. As is often noted, this word for "work" is also the word we use for bringing a baby into the world. Surely we all know that this involves a little effort, and—almost always—suffering. As those who have experienced "good labor" can attest, though, this effort and suffering can be attended by a profound sense of focus and of purpose. Indeed, in moments of intense pain, the greatest danger is to lose that sense of purpose. Working  hard accomplishes much good, and even accomplishes good in us, but this is only truly insofar as it is ordered in this way.

So, just a practical question to bring this little meditation to its end. What would it mean for you, theologian-budding-theologian-or-hopeful-theologian, to work very hard in the good and worthwhile vocation with which you have been blessed, but not to be busy? Would it mean  simply taking on fewer projects? Would it mean, coming full circle, to anchor your work in silence and prayer? Is there a way to do very much the same tasks you are doing now, but with a quite different inner reality?

"Laborious" and "busy" may, after all, look similar in many ways. They may, however, indicate the dividing line between vocations of completely different kinds. 

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Obscure Theology

The monastery, I've suggested, is a powerful reality that can direct those doing the work of theology toward great goods like silence and prayer. It may be worth it, in fact, to turn even to less well known monastic ideals. The Cistercians, for example, seek a life that is "ordinary, obscure, and laborious." What might these sorts of commitments mean for theologians?

Having pondered a bit the first of thesewhat it might mean for theologians not only to tolerate, but to embrace, what is "ordinary"what might we say about the second? Theologians should seek obscurity? Not to put too fine a point on the matter, but could academic theology really need to be any more obscure than it already is?

Surely, though, the point here is not that we should seek to do work that no one can understand. We better understand the call to obscurity when we see it in the context of the whole monastic life.  This is a path of radical unmooring from every form of reassurance and distraction. Poverty means letting go of the basic means by which we sustain and steer our lives. Chastity in a sense cuts even deeper, setting aside marriage and family and some of the deepest joys that belong to this life, not to mention a sense of natural legacy. Obedience, in a way, subsumes them all, insisting, "Your life is not your own."  The call to obscurity, we might say, focuses this renunciation in a very specific direction. Here is a call to give up not marriage or money or power but recognition. (Or, as you will, pick a similar description: "honor," "glory," "fame," "the praise of others"...)

That towering intellect, St. Augustine, saw this clearly. Augustine was a philosopher, after all. Palatial houses, worldly power, bacchanalian entertainment: all of these, he could see right through. But praise from others, and in particular, praise for his intellectual achievements...  there, he knew his own weaknesses too well.  (Augustine, in the end, of course, seeks a doxological cure. Here's a reason to re-read the Confessions: think through it all as an extended essay on the sinsick and salutary possibilities surrounding praise.)

Now, no doubt, wise reader, you have a whole set of questions rising immediately in your mind. Can this really be a call steadfastly to avoid all recognition? Isn't it, after all, precisely excellence in academic pursuit that elicits recognition in the first place? Should we hide our thoughts, our writings, from our companions and colleagues and from a broader readership, in order to avoid the possibility that they might judge them to be, say, good—and that they might say so?

But if you are asking these questions, then we are already having the conversation that must take place. There are no simple answers, as the monastics themselves knew. You need look no further than certain communities of Benedictines, who, having vowed poverty, then established themselves in quiet, disciplined forms of industry and production... and fairly promptly began to grow rich. Or, think of the complicated discernment that any religious order must undertake in order actually to live its vows. Even the most primitive Franciscans, after all, have never quite followed their founder in removing all their clothes. (When I think of my new, Franciscan colleague stepping into his Intro-to-Theology classroom this fall, the wisdom in this choice appears anew.) Even as they seek to live the counsels of perfection, Christians face the messy reality of life in this world: a rich and complicated path of seeking many, distinct goods.  

So, it may be that, just as the Franciscan comes to own a habit or two, we theologians sometimes deal in praise. The collective wisdom of the monastery, though, urges care. Seeing the complexity doesn't mean ignoring the danger. The radical, reforming impulses of the monastery insist that we can never simply go unthinkingly along with the way everyone around us does it. At the very least, theologianswho often note with both frustration and a hint of self-satisfaction their relative lack of wealth or secular power—would do well to keep one eye on that which may tempt them most of all. 

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Ordinary Theology

If monastic wisdom informs, in certain ways,  the work of theology, it is nevertheless the case that there is much more to learn.

On my first visit to Mount Saint Mary's Abbey with my students, one element of the sisters' corporate life, in particular, left us all unnerved. Even after we had joined in their beautiful liturgy and sampled their unbelievably good chocolate candy, we all left with the same thought--"I could never do this"—and for the same reason.  

It happened after Sr. Karen had explained a bit about the community's daily life: rise at 3am, pray, eat, pray, work, pray, eat, pray, and so on until it was finally time for bed at 8pm. We had already begun to soak in the rhythm of it all: regular as clockwork, unhurried as the ages. Then, one of the students casually asked how often the sisters left the abbey for outings. Sister paused, and she did mention one or two exceptions—one of the sisters might have to go to the hospital, someone was assigned to purchase groceries—but, of course, in a cloistered community, the answer for most was clearly something very close to "never." Their property runs to a square mile or two, and that is where the sisters live out these absolutely regular days, as the weeks stretch into years, and years into decades. Even if I had known it intellectually, I was almost knocked flat in absorbing this reality right along with my students. These sisters did not follow their rule in anticipation of a weekend or a vacation or a leave. The horizon of their lives was exactly what we saw: their rule and their place.

The Cistercians speak of living of intentionally seeking a life that is "ordinary, obscure, and laborious." The very first in this triad was exactly what my students and I encountered. In our bones, we could feel the life that the sisters describe as their vocation: resisting the lure of everything special, exciting, unusual, they face head-on the temptation to distraction and to entertainment. They choose, by God's grace,  instead to sink themselves deep, and deeper, into in the rhythm of their rule. Ordered and ordinary.

They do insist, I should say, that once they have committed to their rule and their place, they experience it as a wide and spacious world. "In monastic life," writes Sr. Katie of Mount Saint Mary's, "one is led out into the desert where there is no place to hide... The horizons stretch as far as the eye can see, allowing hearts to expand on the journey towards the God..." It is clear, though, that this freedom is found not in turning aside from the ordinary, but by giving themselves to it completely.

What would it mean, I wonder, for those of us engaged in theology, to take a commitment of this kind to heart? What would it mean, in both our study and our teaching, for us to count orderedness and ordinariness as deep wisdom? We have our own rhythms—weeks and semesters and years—and we certainly have our own work, which can seem as tedious as any. What would it mean not simply to get through these, or to look to novelty or distraction? What might it mean for us to cling to the ordinary, and to consider, it, even, the possible path to the salvation of our souls?

In the world of a thousand innovations, and schools, and movements, ordinary theology may be what we need most of all.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

What We've Learned—and Have Yet to Learn—from Monasticism

It's striking, really.

It's at least a thousand years ago that the work of theology began to shift from the monastery's cloister to the halls of schools. For us in the west, there's now no question: theology means classrooms and degrees. And yet, all these centuries later, so many of those doing the work of theology still feel a pull that's hard to describe. We dust off a copy of The Seven Storey Mountain, we find ourselves at rest in a spare, stone abbey chapel somewhere, or maybe we have the good luck to receive spiritual direction from someone who knows the great monastic traditions. In any case, when we go back to our busy lives, a quiet voice remains. And although we may not speak of it at all, the monastery shapes the theological work we do.

Even beyond the individual experiences of individual theologians, I think we see certain larger impulses that hearken back, that mark the ongoing, silent presence of the monastery. In the loud and disorienting world of contemporary theology, when more and more of the work is done by those living in "the real world" (read: the world of car payments and and kids and committee meetings), certain elements appear and reappear as reminders of a very different world. Monasticism is still teaching us some foundational truths...

Theology flows from, and culminates in, prayer. We know these two are interwoven in the larger reality of the Church, but we feel the immediate, concrete way in which prayerin all its many formsbelongs with reading, writing, studying, and teaching. In the midst of it all, we know that this funds and informs what we are trying to do. 

Theology requires our whole selves, our whole lives. Others may see theology only as an "interest" we have, as a hobby, as a job, or even as a career. We know better. Even those of us who never made solemn vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience can feel the way in which the reality we approach in theology does indeed make demands not only on our minds and souls, but on our bodies, our wallets, our lives.

We are marked by encounter with what exceeds us. In Book Nine of his Confessions, Augustine describes the moment, when, in conversation with his mother, he is transported beyond the physical world. Being pulled toward God in love means a silencing of created things"tongues' and "signs" and transient things"that allows him to hear what they actually say: "We did not make ourselves." Even if we haven't quite had a vision like Augustine's, the heart of the monastic experience is to know the same is true of us. We have not, we do not, make ourselves. Even as we pursue the tasks demanded of usattending or teaching classes, writing or grading papers, trying to understand theological ideas—that unnerving and healing reality is never fully forgotten.

These and other monastic markings that remain with us. On the other hand, it seems to me that there is monastic wisdom yet to be learned. Our particular moment waits for us to remember other forms of unnerving and healing insight.

Many of us are familiar with that great foundational order of monastics, the Benedictines. But it is their offspring, the Cistercians, that have me thinking since I began to visit a community of Cisterican nuns near my home. The Cistercians claim for themselves the charism of a life that is "ordinary, obscure, and laborious." In the next three posts, the implications of this Cistercian vocation for theologians, considered.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

A Modest Proposal for Liberals and Conservatives

Surely, it's too easy to say that our public discourse is simply a war between "the left" and "the right." It's not that simple. Myriad philosophical and practical commitments come into play in concrete situations. And how many individuals fit into the categories of "liberal" or "conservative," with no remainder?

And yet. This framework powerfully shapes conversation in the U.S. (and elsewhere?). It's reinforced, moreover, by a two-party political system, in which candidates bow down at the altar of party platform, and voters forget there are other ways to think. In the world I inhabit of Christian (and particularly Catholic) theology, a standoff between "left" and "right" certainly does seem to describe much of what we say, and how we say it.

So, assuming for a moment that an ongoing battle between liberals and conservatives does in some way structure the way we think and interact, it's worth it for us to ask: how could we do this better? Both in moving toward greater understanding and in moving toward concrete action, what very small steps might allow us to begin to envision working together?

Charles Camosy, fellow theologian, has recently offered his own eminently sensible list of suggestions for avoiding polarization and moving forward in fruitful ways. Here, I'd like to fine-tune a little further, with two very concrete suggestions that assume asymetry in the way liberals and conservatives see each other. My guess is that they may apply not only in my little theological world, but also more broadly. For some people, they will seem like too much to ask. For others, they will seem like much too little. But for what it's worth to those in the middle, here they are.   

Conservatives should not assume that liberals are libertine pleasure-seekers. Now, let the record show: it turns out there are, in fact, some liberals who are libertine pleasure-seekers. (Or, at least, they give every evidence that this is the case.) This, however, is a caricature of liberal commitments, and it does not describe at all the lives of many, many convinced liberals (not to mention the fact that it does pretty neatly describe some conservatives). Think of the work of so many who give their lives in dangerous and uncomfortable places, providing food and medicine and life-giving education, putting themselves at risk for the good of others, precisely because of their liberal commitments. If any individual conservative thinker would begin by assuming that there are liberals living lives of self-discipline and self-sacrifice that would put her to shame, she would stand the best chance of being right.

Liberals should not assume that conservatives are stupid (or, at best, ignorant). Again, friends, we must admit: there are conservatives for whom intellect is not their greatest gift. There are, furthermore, conservatives who hold to their positions simply because it's never occurred to them to think otherwise. And, both of these are true of some liberals, as well. The fact is, on the other hand, that there are staunch conservatives who are brilliant, who study and teach at the most outstanding universities in the world, and whose conservative positions are based precisely on a lifetime of careful, consistent thinking. If any individual progressive thinker would begin by assuming that there are conservatives vastly more intelligent and better educated than herself, she would stand the best chance of being right.

Again, I suspect that many people will see these as hopelessly minimal suggestions. Others may find them too much to take on. (How, after all, can you tell yourself not to believe something that simply is true?) Still othersyes, I hear those whispers through the Internetwill only want to note that I haven't gotten it quite right. (Liberals aren't libertine; they're just hopelessly naive. Conservatives aren't dumb; they're just mean.) In any case, though, it seems to me worth it to clear away some brush here--with the hope of burning it. There are serious issues and questions to be addressed. Let's get on to those, rather than wasting our time with these.