Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A Final Word on the Suicide of a Friend

On Friday, February 23, 2007, I discovered the body of my friend. I left work early in order to change a bad tire on the relic Cadillac I was driving at the time, then to drive the forty-five minutes from Kansas City to Lawrence to pick up my two young children for the weekend. I found him in his bed, sunk into the mattress. I had seen him the previous day around the same time of day and thought he was sleeping. Now I found him again in the same position, though I could not be sure. I called his name several times, and he did not respond.

When my first child was a baby, he slept so deeply I sometimes feared that he had become a victim of SIDS, and like many parents have done, would put my ear down to his mouth to hear the consolation of his soft breathing. I did not think of this when confronted with my friend, but instead tried to gently shake him awake. I knew that he was dead, but I did not want to admit it. I called his name. I shook his foot. I yelled, "wake up!" I grabbed his cold arm and shook him. The chasm between the truth and my desire cracked deeply into me, so that I behaved irrationally. For instance, as if being filmed or watched I mimicked what I have seen hundreds of times on television and in the movies, reached forward, and checked his neck for a pulse. As a child might do playing a game. I felt nothing, of course, but then recognized my action for its own absurdity; I did not know how to check for a pulse, a bad actor in bad faith.

After summoning another housemate from downstairs, calling my kid's mom and letting her know I would not be picking them up that evening, calling 911 and, insanely, telling them, "I can't wake my roommate up" even though I knew in my heart that my problem was more metaphysical than any medic would ever be prepared to handle; after the crime scene unit made me wait in the cold for more than an hour, then told me there wasn't any evidence that anyone had come into the house and done this to him (I also knew that already); after they carted his covered body out in silence, leaving behind the overturned garbage they went through, open drawers and even their discarded plastic gloves thrown here and there without care on the furniture; after my friend Mandy checked on me and took me to Tea Drops in Westport where I had a tall glass of bubbly, sweet and exotic green tea, I went back into the house and recognizing that he was dead, that he was gone, slipped easily into a state of shock.

I have been in physical shock before, and have the scars to prove it. The accidents of childhood sent me to the hopsital on several occasions -- a deep cut in my brow, my big front-toe nearly dismembered, the gash on my lip from when the Malamute lashed out at my throat -- and each time, though bleeding, dimly aware of sensation, I did not panic. I remained calm, stoic, cognizant of small ebbs of pain, but derailed from participation in my own existence, doubled, an observer only marginally inhabiting experience. The mind seems to clear, facts differentiate between themselves, variables are assigned degrees of significance and value, a clear course of action determined -- all apart from the pain, the loss, the full dimensions of suffering. One's sensory perceptions of the tragic become numbed and are malfunctioning. One seems more in control, able to cope, to "stay cool in a crisis", or "work better under pressure".

I made arrangements to see my kids, made phone calls. I informed our mutual friends, and other friends of his. I spoke with his family members, bundled up his sheets and blankets to hide some of the travesty from them. I cleaned our section of the house meticulously, except for his room, which still held all his things. His father came the next day, a large man who reminded me of the archetypical farmer, broad and sweeping and somehow connected to the earth, yet disconnected today, his countenance clouded. His older brother, a pastor, generous and full of questions, not understanding what had happened. And another brother, stern and distant, angry in his grief. His presence seemed to linger. I spoke to him.

I asked him, I asked the empty room, why? I asked, what happened? The questions seemed to float up from the floorboards, hang in the air. I spoke his name. I said to him, to the empty room, I love you, and I'm sorry, and pray for me.

My friend was diagnosed as schizophrenic, but he was responsible and to all appearances, sober. He worked a full-time job, paid child support for his two young children (visited them monthly in another state), paid his mortgage and the bills on his house, acted as a landlord to myself and three others (including tenants of a front apartment and a basement apartment), and saw his psychiatrist at least twice a month. He was prescribed an anti-psychotic pill, an antidepressant and Xanax, all of which he took regularly, but against which he also struggled. The drugs paralyzed him. He had very little personal energy. I would sometimes be writing at my computer, and turn around with surprise to discover that he had been sitting in a chair behind me. When I asked for how long, he might say, a while, or thirty minutes, or, not long. He would creep in silently and sit and say nothing. He sat on the back porch and chain smoked cigarettes. He died of a drug overdose, having swallowed all of his medication at once.

Small insinuating accusations gradually presented themselves. I had complained the day before, perhaps even after he had died and was so far undiscovered, to a friend on the phone that his mere presence totally drained me. Had he heard? He asked me to pray with him at an inopportune time, and I was too busy, invited to a banquet but I had other plans. He had written to a mutual friend that he and I didn't do much together, and that 'Eric is in his own little world." I betrayed him through my own omissions, by not reaching out to him as often as I should have, by not being as faithful as I could be, by not being the person who I ought to be. All the various sins of pride, or selfishness, seemingly small acts of neglect, acts that I considered trivial, personal and private collect themselves into an army that defeats me, and through omission, destroys my brother. Would he have not murdered himself had I behaved otherwise? There is no way to tell. I am to blame, however, not for the destruction of possibilities or exigencies in an inscrutible could-have-been future, but for the destruction of the possibility for love and redemption through my own carelessness.

I am to blame and I am not to blame. We are all responsible for ourselves and for each other, it all connects, and if that isn't true in this situation, then I do not know where it might ever be found to be true. Yet, I am not to blame. I did not cause or create his mental illness, nor suggest to his sensibilities the notion of ending his life, nor make the decision, in whatever skewed or layered dimension of thought it lay, for him. We are all responsible for each other, but we are all responsible for ourselves as well.

The day of the funeral arrived, a day to slide from shock, remember him, begin to grieve. My friend was interested in becoming Orthodox, and had attended services at my parish, but he had not; he still struggled, he said, with a few issues. His parents were lifetime members of a Protestant church which I took to be Dutch and Reformed and Evangelical, though I was never sure of the exact denomination. I prepared to let go, to mourn the loss. The memorial service began, the pastor spoke of my friend's childhood, his antics, narratives designed to highlight the facticity of his life, sharpen the loss, open the doorway to grief.

But his eulogy shifted, turned sour by his tenacious and discursive allegience to theological fairy-tales. Most of the congregants were not well acquainted with my friend, but knew his family, and they were there for them, so the pastor, he seemed to feel, had a duty to instruct. This was a suicide, after all, an act which elucidates human freedom, our capacity for destruction, the great and terrible responsibility of freedom in the face of which we might tremble in humility, or run from in abstraction and fear. The pastor chose the latter route, and his refrain became, "...what happened to the joyful boy we knew? how did he go wrong?" Obviously, the notion that he had a mental illness beyond his control and for which he was not at fault never occurred to the man.

His presumption was clearly that my friend's suicide (assuming it was a suicide) was proof that he had backslidden from faith, that he had plunged himself into the decadence of his own darkness. His words and arguments did not gel well, became ethereal and patronizing and self-contradictory as he sought to balance a doctrine of "eternal security" against an error of antinomianism. Finally, with great bravado and indignity, he held his Bible up Jimmy Swaggart-style, and roared that my friend's problem was that he "started hanging out with a group of people who do not believe in this!" By this he meant myself and our mutual friends; he meant the Orthodox Church. What was meant to be a eulogy turned quickly into an accusation against my friend's character that Satan himself would heartily approve, slander of my friends and myself, and a glaring misrepresentation of the Orthodox Church and its understanding of the holy Scriptures.

My grief turned quickly into anger and disgust. My friend was mentally ill, a sickness that preceded any interest he had in Orthodoxy, and manifested itself long before he started hanging out with the likes of me or our mutual friends. He struggled in courage, but in the end lost that fight. But this pastor followed the gist of his religious fervor, which is to turn life into abstraction, God into an object of discursive theologizing, prayer itself into a privatized validation of personal doctrinaire tenets and beliefs. The church of my friend's family, the church of his childhood, even the sickness of his soul could not be culprits to his downfall, none of these could be blamed for the audacity of his tragic ending. So we were blamed out of fear and for the sake of doctrinal propriety. At least the pastor could protect and defend his beliefs and himself, escape blame for this final act that ought not have happened given the "correct doctrine" in which he was raised. So he ran in rhetorical fear to slander a dead young man, thirty-two years old, in the rabid defense of sola Scriptura.

I was angry, but I did not want to respond directly to the pastor because my friend's brother worked with him, and I did not want to cause him any further pain. Instead, I responded more indirectly by posting a heartfelt message on the funeral home guestbook webpage. I recieved grateful responses from my friend's mother, his ex-wife, and other members of his extended family, and friends as well. I merely pointed out the good qualities he exemplified, tried to give a more complete picture of who he is without trying to make a "theological" point.

Various people respond differently to suicide. The Orthodox Church is lenient and understanding towards those who murder themselves when it can be shown that the person was not mentally sound. It is less lenient (i.e., will not provide an Orthodox burial) towards those who are of a sound mind, but believe that suicide is a viable option from a philosophical basis. We do not have the right to murder anyone, nor to take our own lives.

I do not know what happened in the case of my friend, what went through his mind, whether or not it was an accident, or what happened to him beyond death. None of that is any of my business or within the purview of my knowledge. I think of him often, and I pray for him, my requests for mercy on his behalf hopefully reaching beyond the gates of time and space to broach the timeless Day that is not a day, that of judgment, in the eternal presence of God.

Some scientists believe that memory works by remembering memories; gradually, we no longer really recall the initial event, but our memory of it. Because my sweet, dear friend was significant to me, and had died, my mind, clutched in the fist of my heart, began to quickly remember various moments in the time we spent together, conjure his presence, his aloof demeanor, the light in his eyes, a repressed humor.

I tell others about the many times he would walk out of his room, and my two children, four and two years old, would cry out with joy, “Philip!” and run to him, and as children do, grab his arm or his legs, tell him what they have been doing, a pure greeting from which I can learn.

On one occasion, he looked at me with genuine bafflement, as one child wrapped himself around Phil’s leg and the other pulled on his hand, and said, “I wonder why your kids like me so much?” I laughed at him, but didn’t reply because I thought the answer was obvious. Maybe I should have said, “because you are a likeable guy,” or something to that effect, but I didn’t. I did not realize that he didn’t know.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Worms and Men

While living at a monastery in California, there was a period of time during which the Abbot and I found ourselves alone with each other, and were sometimes forced to converse. The only monk there at the time, along with the only novice, were both on a pilgrimage to Mt. Athos, leaving the hieromonk and myself to our own devices.

We entertained each other with stories. I spoke briefly of my own conversion, and he of his. I remember him telling me that while he was a student at an ivy league college on the east coast, he, as an avowed agnostic, took a class on the history of Christianity. His idea of Christianity was one that denigrated the human person, an idea that he loathed and did not believe in. In his view, Christianity taught that the human person is a worm, not merely stained by sin, but totally and thoroughly corrupted to the point of a complete absence of spiritual resonance. The heavy burden of guilt, both inherited from Adam as well as attained through one's own actions, proved the human being to be depraved in every faculty of his miserly existence, even down to the marrow of his very nature.

(Although the abbot was not a Calvinist, this is one of the main ideas of Calvinism, from which follows the notion that one is so demolished by guilt and sin that one is incapable of his own volition of wanting to know God, or choosing to embrace Christ, unless he is overpowered by God and spiritually regenerated -- but all that is another story.)

The Abbot, before he became a Christian, felt a particular distaste towards the faith that was focused on this idea of the repugnance of the human person. Then, in the class he was given assigned readings and confronted with the writings of the Church fathers , and found something else entirely. Instead, he discovered that the early Christians believed that the human person, created in the image of God, is good, has intrinsic value, is not de facto guilty of sin from birth, nor so engorged by the presence of sin as to be incapable of seeking salvation from God. He was particularly stricken, and angered, by an article regarding St. Gregory of Nyssa (c. 330- c.395), who wrote that although stained and darkened by the presence of death through sin, the human person shares through his higher faculties a reflection of the qualities of divinity.

"He who created human beings in order to make them share in his own fullness so disposed their nature that it contains the principle of all that is good, and each of these dispositions draws them to desire the corresponding divine attribute. So God could not have deprived them of the best and most precious of His attributes, self-determination, freedom...." (Catechetical Orations).

The Abbot told me that the early saints of the historic church, particularly St Gregory of Nyssa, infuriated him because they did not describe that which he knew as "Christianity". Instead of describing the human person as at core a hopeless wretch, justly guilt-ridden and deserving of nothing but punishment, they described him as stained and corrupted and darkened by death, yes, and therefore given over to deep-rooted sinful addictions -- but also, they described the human person as in his very nature glorious, the very image of God, of such weight and tremendous value that not even death could totally eradicate his worth.

Angrily, after reading an encyclopedia article about St Gregory of Nyssa in which he described the human person in the latter manner, the student who would later become my spiritual father (for a while, anyway) wrote to the author of the article, someone named Georges Florovsky, a Russian who taught at a nearby university. In response, Florovsky invited him to come and visit him, which he did, and together they visited the writings of the fathers, the Scriptures, and Orthodox services, which he described as a liberating experience, and through which he himself embraced Christ.

I am reminded of his story on occasion, usually when I come across people who are not Christians, but who see us as morose, guilt-ridden and neurotic hypocrites, forever caught in a tangle of self-deprecation and inevitable human longing. This is not the Christian story; it is an unfortunate and deceptive distortion.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Author Interviews

Some time ago I discovered the "Wired for Books" website which contains an audio archive of interviews with various writers conducted by Don Swaim (http://wiredforbooks.org/mp3/). I downloaded nearly all of the interviews, a few dozen hours of material. They are informal, conducted in the 70s and 80s, fodder for a much briefer radio news broadcast, from which Swaim would cut and snip, parsing the question and answer format for a bit of reportage that left undisclosed his own often humorous, idiosyncratic personality.

Today at work, I listened to three somewhat awkward interviews with the late Alice Adams (whose stuff I have never read), a conversation in the mid-80s with Allen Ginsberg, two interviews with the Israeli writer Amos Oz, and a talk with Amy Tan. (The Adrienne Rich interview was cut short after three minutes -- the mp3 file apparently didn't fully download.) As a perceptive person might see, I started with the "A's".

Adams, a prolific short story writer for The New Yorker, spoke of her various troubles with rejection in the industry, which prompted Swaim to speak of Rick Bass, the short story and nature writer, who he says claims to have written a thousand short stories before one was finally accepted for publication. I find this extremely difficult to believe. Maybe he was into flash fiction? Adams found this incredible as well, but recommended trying for the best publications first, as she did, and working your way down. (Things may have changed in publishing in the twenty years since she gave this word of advice.) Also of interest -- she mentioned she taught a creative writing class, attended by Harriet Doer, who was in her late 60s and working on her first novel while in the class (Stones of Ibarra). She later published it at the age of 74, and it won the National Book Award.

Ginsberg was eloquent, political, passionate. Smaim did not know who Moloch, the pagan god whom Ginsberg references in the second part of Howl. So the late Beat poet told him that the Israelites were forbidden to offer their children to the god Moloch; they were not allowed o make them to "pass through the fire". He related this to what parents do to their children in our civilized, industrialized, war-profiterring countries. He also read the first few lines of Howl, a rendering that brought life to it which I haven't quite heard so well before. He said that the poem was meant in some sense to be a literary translation of the jazz sax riffs rendered by Lester Young, which brings me to a less abstract form of translation...

Amoz Oz was interesting in his theory of translation because he writes all of his work originally in Hebrew. He then works with American translators on the English renditions. His arguement was that he did not desire a too-literal translation of his work, especially idiomatically, since that would break up the normalcy of the dialogue. he demands of his translators, he said, that they "be unfaithful to be loyal". He said that it was like playing a violin concerto on he piano, which can be done beautifully as long as one doesn't try to make the piano sound like a violin, a vulgarity. Oz was also of interest in that he grew up in a conservative home, rebelled as a young teenager by joining a kibbutz (a type of socialist and originally agrarian commune -- see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kibbutz). As a writer as of the interview, he still lived in the kibbutz with his family, where he was allowed to spend a lot of his time writing, but also still waited and served tables during some meals, could be found driving a tractor as well. The kibbutz basically subsidized his writing during his early years. After he found fame and more money through translation in English and other languages, he still gave all his money and royalties to the community; he signed his checks over to the "smiling accountant". However, should he ever need anything, such as a month off to rent a motel room somewhere and write, he could merely go to the "frowning accountant" to make a request, and a check would be unquestioningly written to him.

Amy Tan, whom I have also never read, but with whom I am familiar as a member of the rock and roll band, "The Rock Bottom Remainders" (along with Stephen King, Roy Blount Jr, Dave Barry, Ridley Pearson, and other mass market literary figures) spoke of her first novel, The Joy Luck Club, which began as a series of short stories. She reports that the telling of her own personal experience, her subjective and honest rendering through fictional characters, unveiled universal truths about the nature of motherhood. Jewish woman would say, "your mother wasn't Chinese! She was Jewish!" And Irish, African, American, Russian, Greek woman, the same. She was surprised by this, she said, since she was writing something very particular about her own unique experience.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

File Under Gratitude: My First Parish

After church in Santa Rosa, California, someone would inevitably approach me to share the afternoon Paul would want to go to a "pub", and we'd invariably drink pints all afternoon, maybe see a movie, talk about his desire to return to Finland forever ("you just like it because you only go there on vacation," I would tell him. "It would be different if you moved there"), various women, our mutually discordant but similar protestant pasts, the time the Abbott in Calistoga falsely introduced him to the local press as his novice, and the years he spent living in Ben Lomond before everything fell apart. We might take off for a few days to Santa Cruz, visit Abbot Jonah and the monks and their birds in Pt. Reyes, or crash for the night on the church grounds of St. Nicholas in San Anselmo.

Or, Dylan and I would hang out, maybe go to Berkeley, talk about his adventures at the various monasteries of Mt. Athos, or go to his parents' house where he and his mom (on drums) and dad (guitar, lead vocalist) would play music until the cops came; when Dylan played he made a funky guitar-face.

Mark and I drove the twenty minutes to the Napa valley to taste wine; I was working as a valet at a car dealership, and though he was an accomplished artist, he was working as a substitute teacher for the local school district. The attractive girl planted and weened in the California air asked us as she handed us each a glass of sweet dessert wine what we did for a living, and I was about to tell her, but Mark interupted me, "I'm an artist, he's a writer," and that worked well enough. Mark is now the monk Ephrem and writes icons in a monastery in the wildwoods of northern California, and I have not seen nor heard from him in ten years.

James was about twenty-five years older than me, a one-time Roman Catholic monk, ex-hippi rebel, and he lived near me in South Park, and after church he would sometimes give me a ride home, or invite me to dinner. A fool-becoming-holy, known for her mental incapacity, called him James the Lesser, or the Second, because he was baptized after me, which made me James the first, though I could have been his son (some people, usually visitors or newcomers, thought it was the case).

My godfather, Patrick, ever busy, might have me over for dinner amid his bustling family, or more often meet me for coffee at Dennys for serious talk, then always, glancing at the placard by the register that said, "We Do Not Accept Personal Checks" would ask, "Can you take a personal check?" I shook my head, and said, "I can't take you anywhere."

When I first started to attend St. Mary's Orthodox church in Santa Rosa, the services were held in a small building with blue trim, now a chapel, that, lacking pews or chairs, would quickly fill until there was barely room to move. During my first Holy Week, when my legs felt like they were made of steel bolted to the dloor, everything began to shake and my girlfriend looked at me and cried out, and I felt myself falling; I fainted, someone called 911, and I was brought quickly into the dining hall, surrounded by a clutch of older ethnic women, one of them waving smelling salts in my face. The paramedic asked me, "do you know what time it is?" and I automatically looked at my watch, and everyone laughed.

The first day I attended my girlfriend and I walked several miles from Sonoma State, where she was living in the dorms, in order to make a catechism class, which was occuring outside in the beautiful California summer of 1994. We met the priest, Fr Michael, who had so much energy he seemed to be twenty years younger than his actual age, which would have made you think he was in his mid-fifties. The first thing he ever said to me was "are you going to work at the Glendi!?" His request was insistent but honest, truly fervent -- you couldn't hold it against him; he was possessed of some deep bottomless well of energy that forever manifested itself, whch also tended to cloak the true depths of his wisdom. "Go sign up to work at the Glendi!" Fr. Michael was totally outside of himself, gregariously hiding his wisdom; he knew more about what was going on than he let on to know, and was a true shepherd whom I grew to love, who called me, on occasion, "Hemingway".

During the time I was there, a new building was built on the land, financed to some large degree , I think, by the aforementioned "Glendi" ( an annual food festival). It is a huge traditional Orthodox building. The older blue building was named St. Mary's "chapel", the temple called "St. Seraphim of Sarov's", and the parish called, "Protection of the Holy Virgin", a mustard seed that has burst out voluptuously, ironically but appropriately named after the recluse who hid himself in the wilderness and in the shelter of his tearful prayers. A few years after moving away, I went back for the dedication of the temple, a daylong service and celebration, which was enormously beautiful, and the new building, five times the size as the old one, was filled the way the old blue building used to be. I nearly wept with emotion when i saw the old building, the place of my baptism, the ghosts of myself and my friends at catechism class outside in the shade. There were so many new people that I hardly recognized anyone; and some of the people I did reocognize had forgotten me. I saw Paul and Dylan, and Ephrem, who had helped to paint the Byzantine icons, a student of Ouspensky.

After the long service, everyone went to eat. Multitudes of tables were set for a true feast, which we ate in fellowship with each other until we were full; the old women and men broke out their bottles of vodka, wine was passed around, a meal was served. James the Lesser and I sat drinking wine and vodka until we were drunk, and closed the place down, and I drove off with new friends, Juliana and Anna, and have never returned.

These were the saints during that personal era in my private unwritten hagiography, my sisters and brothers, the progeny of apostles and martyrs.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

October Festivities

I picked my six year up from school on Friday. We are sharing the weekend together, since my four year old is presently with his grandmother. My son informed me immediately that he wanted to have a face painting that evening at the school carnival, so we hung out together in Lawrence for a few hours.

We went to the park, and he dutifully played alone on the equipment, racing along the bars, sliding down the slides with such a serious intent it seemed to approach reverie. I glanced at the old man sitting on the bench beside me reading, The Philokalia. We both watched the kids play, and said nothing.

After a while, he left, and my son and I gathered what was left of our wits, and made our way to the school carnival. He seemed to enjoy himself, taking a turn at various booths, saying hello to schoolmates, eating cotton candy and later pizza. A shy kid, he rolled his shoulders and danced during the cakewalk, which I thought was rather funny.

In line for a long inflatable trampoline obstacle course with final wall and slide to the bottom, a little girl in an adjacent line sought his attention by repeatedly calling his name. She said, "I'm going to race you!"

He just glanced at her, ignored her.

I bent low and asked him, "is that little girl in your class?"

He said, "no, she's in the classroom next to mine. She's in second grade."

I said, "Ah, I see."

She kept glancing at him, trying to position herself to race him, glancing his way, not allowing anyone to cut in line, and he was oblivious.

When we reached the front, the woman taking the tickets asked him, "are you by yourself, or racing someone?"

He said, "by myself."

It wasn't a rejection, I'm sure, but the little girl looked exasperated.

Today we went to the Kemper Museum of Art, and upon gazing at our first canvas, my six year old son said, "I could do that! That looks like something I did!" And it did, a fingerpainting.

Later at Crown Center we passed through the pumpkin patch and the larger, more expensive Fall carnival being hosted there, and made it unintentionally just in time for a marionette show. he ran and sat down up front, and since there wasn't room for me, I sat at a table some distance from him. My view of the stage was obscured by a pillar, so I watched audience reaction, comprised mostly of adults with their children attendant on the floor in front or on their laps; I watched, and it was not all that different as an experience as watching the children play the previous day.

For all the celebration, it was not an autumnal day. I am in any case, having grown up in central California, not all that used to such a marked expression of seasonal fervor. I didn't grow up ever having much of an Autumn in the first place, but it seems like October festivities occurred much closer to the end of the month to coincide with Halloween.

The days, however, are sweet, filled with new light and vague expectation.

The Monk and Philosopher

The father is a secular humanist who writes stringent critiques of religious piety. The son, once a promising scientist, is a Tibetan Buddhist and translator for the Dalai Lama. Contrary to some popular reports, they are not estranged; rather, the father,a famous western philosopher, is curious about the son’s eastern religious beliefs, and allows him space and opportunity to present them in the extended conversation which comprises the tome, The Monk and the Philosopher: A Father and Son Discuss the Meaning of Life.

Combined within the binding of this work is not only a conversation between father (Jean-Francois Revel) and son (Matthieu Ricard), but also a sort of dialogue between east and west, an agreeable disagreement between two athiesms, the Western secular denial of a transcendent personal Creator (Jewish, Christian, Muslim) and the Eastern philosophical denial of the religious Hindu traditions which comprises the sophisticated Buddhist system of thought.

Throughout the course of the discussion we see, more than anything, the west’s embrace of eastern values through the father’s curiousity about the son, as well as the west’s secular ignorance and stupidity about its own religious traditions. Many of Revel’s statements, for instance, regarding Christian traditions and mystery are unfounded and struck me as odd and obtuse; while many of Ricard’s statements about Buddhist beliefs, while seeming more in line with my own understanding of religious tradition, often struck me as self-contradictory and confusing.

For instance, on several occasions Revel makes broad sweeping statements in critcism of Tibetan Buddhist peity, using almost archaic Reformation language, levelling the argument of "empty superstition" in an uninformed manner, sort of like trying to cut butter with a chainsaw. For one instance of many, Revel falsely claims, "In Catholicism, to light a candle in a church implies the very superstitious idea that the candle can earn us either the grace of a saint, of the holy Virgin, or even of God himself, and grant our wishes."

One might wonder how Revel defines "superstition" or whom he queried about the practice of candle-lighting, which certainly can become a superstitious act, but is not necessarily so. Rather, it is most often a symbolic act, representing steadfastness and veneration for those whom one honors, as well as symbolizing the light that enlightens the heart darkened throough cosmic ruin and personal sin, and is therefore imbued with inherent meaning and beauty. Revel too easily grasps the potential denigration of an act, and fallaciously represents it as the act itself, revealing basic misunderstandings and flaws in his critique of his own western heritage. Revel constantly repeats similar genetic fallacies throughout the discussion, which his son sometimes eloquently refutes.

In this instance, Ricard offers: "Such customs are useful outer supports allowing believers to communicate with an inner truth. I know from experience that when ordinary Tibetans offer thousands of butter lamps (the equivalent of candles) they’re well aware that the light they’re offering symbolizes wisdom dispelling darkness. The prayer they’d be making as they offered lamps would go something like, ‘May the light of wisdom arise in myself and all living beings, both in this life and in lives to come.’ Even very simple people are aware of the symbolism."

Father and son continue to discuss metaphyics, compassion and love, reincarnation, karma, politics, meditation and the differences between western secular philosophy and eastern spirituality.

Unfortunately, Revel’s secular view is a bit dated and rigorous; he would fit in more with the perishing scientism of the last century (and the one previous to it) than with the current philosophical debates surrounding, for instance, the nature of mind, computationalism, and other, less discursive or empircal models. Like Nietszche, Revel is unaware of the nature of the mysteries of his own religious traditions, and in rejecting degradations, commits fallacious steps of logic without, perhaps, realizing the manner in which his own secular assumptions are more like blinding faith than are the very traditions he attempts to refute. In other words, he is a fundamentalist for atheism, owning all the negative connotations that may be attached.

If this were a book by Revel himself, I would have thrown it across the room (such as when, again, he defines "free-will" as the unlimited ability to do anything one wishes, which is not the definition any advocate of free-will would agree with--even Kierkegaard admitted that free-will is limited by necessity). Revel represents well, then, perhaps, a dying or even dead secularist scientism in the west, (which in recent years has sought to revive itself through various popular books that basically regurgitated well-refuted 18th and 19th century arguments for atheism).

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Orthodox Christian

I have been an Orthodox Christian for fifteen years, and am still becoming one. (The Orthodox Church is the ancient Church of the east, which divided from the Roman see over a long period of time, culminating in 1054.)

I started out as a vaguely religious secularist, and lived that way up until I was eighteen years old, when I experienced a dramatic conversion. I felt immediately at the time that I was called to ministry, and many friends and acquaintances started to attend church -- several were baptized by my Protestant pastor in the swimming pool in my back yard.

So I left and became a missionary for Youth With A Mission for a short while. In reaction to what I deemed to be an over-emphasis on experience to an exclusion of love for truth, I left and worked in a sawmill for several months, saving money to attend Bible College. There, I went to the other extreme and became a staunch five-point Calvinist. I bought and read all the contemporary Reformed books, the Puritans, Edwards, Warfield, Van Til and others. After becoming disillusioned with this, yet still strongly believing in it, I discovered the Orthodox Church through correspondence with a famous Protestant who had converted.

Two years later, after memorizing the inquirer's class of an excellent priest and teacher that I had on video tape, reading Bp Kallistos Ware's books and the books of others, I knew I wanted to become Orthodox. I entered into the life of a local parish in California, and after attending a catechism class and going to church regularly for a couple of years, experiencing the dogma (and having the living dogma as passed down through the centuries as the context of my experience), I was received into the Orthodox Church through baptism.

This initiated a journey of the spirit, one of vital life, which is ever changing and transformative, both a struggle and a joy, one that exposes my wickedness but also reveals the true good nature, the humanity that underlies the stain of sin. Christianity in the Orthodox Church for me no longer consists solely of either a series of varying experiences meant to bless or edify me, nor does it remain an abstract and academic series of discursive ideas that I am to strictly adhere to and then apply to my life. Rather, it is personal, living, often distressing and difficult, but always rich and fertile with the possibility of and often unexpected manifestations of joy, even in suffering, which has as its goal the actual, real, in space-and-time as well as timeless reality of personal change.

One gradually becomes not super-righteous or judgmental or puritanical, nor sappy and witless and ineffectual, but more real, intoxicated by sobriety, more deeply in tune with intrinsic meaning, closer to one's own unsoiled nature, alive and fully human.

I haven't arrived at any serious penultimate fulfillment of humanity in union with Christ, riddled with addictions as I am, but I am grateful to be on this path of being a Christian and constantly still becoming one.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Days Are Passing

Reading yesterday the book, View from 80 by the late poet Malcolm Cowley, he mentioned the common perception that years fly by more quickly the older you get, and that from age 79 to 80 passes like a week for a child. There would seem to be a combination of double perceptions at work here, since time for a child (at least for me when I was a child) often seemed elongated and possibly endless. "How long is five hours?" I remember asking my mom.

We were visiting my great-grandparents who were very old (at the time they were in their late 70s). Their house smelled of powder and yellowing paper, and old wood furniture that has been overused. I recall distinctly pondering the blue veins that were prominent in their hands, the dark splotches covering their knuckles. They both lived into their nineties pretty much self-sufficiently. I was bored. They talked, motivated by my dad's questions, about how they met near the turn of the previous century, how he worked on the train, how they lost control of a Model T. Their voices were brittle. My heart felt pressed. I wanted out, to go and watch television, to be in the fresh sun, to eat junk food and drink Coca Cola.

"How long are we going to be here?" I asked my mom.

"A while," she said.

"How long is that?"

She likely guessed, but I took it as prophecy, "five hours."

The hours stretched, and seemed long, like hours you might experience at work. I found a dead bird in the front yard, and somehow associated this with impatient waiting. "Don't touch it," I was told, "you might get sick." And so for years I imagined that the bodies of birds somehow carried some sort of toxic poison that could infect you by touching them. I wasn't a particularly bright child. So intermingled in my subconscious is the short flight of a dead bird, the toxicity of passing time, the boredom of age and of impatience.

So now I wait as well. On the horizon I have a meeting that I am waiting for that tends to trump other things. In November, Shannon will be here. I anticipate this the way I used to wait for Christmas, but have greater hope than I ever had for the things I might unwrap.

The days also sometimes seem to shuffle sideways when you are trying to make ends meet, as the common parlance has it. I am trying to write more, force myself to write even amid all that I lack and all that I have (such as numerous vain worries).

I work, I come home, rest. Write. Go to church, pray. Play with my kids. It is all moving along forward towards some indistinct culmination, something maybe tinged with hope, other than certain age or death, an expectation. Maybe this is the impulse behind authentic ambition.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Blog Overview

The idea of this blog is that it is an accretion of various modes of thinking expressed in writing "from the margins" to gradually build a larger island of work. I've wittled things down to four basic modes: opinion, reflection, discovery, life. I came to these after blogging on Live Journal for five or six years, looking over what I had done there.

Opinion might encompass, according to some people, the entire blog, but I am going to limit it for the sake of categorization to really peripheral subjects, like politics (yes, that's peripheral) and comment on news items, etc. -- basically, essays.

Reflection is meant to embody more thoughtful and philosophical or "theological" pieces, as well as more prosaic writing rooted in a subjective rendering of my own experience, narrative work, and creative nonfiction.

Discovery will contain reportage and maybe critique (insofar as I am able or willing) of various media to which I have subjected myself, such as books, music, magazine articles, lectures, square dances and the like.

Life will be the mode of writing which I seem to do a lot of, and a habit I would like to amend and repair; it's simply the diarylike reporting of my own situation and activities.

Each category will be indexed with the closest label any given piece of writing will most resemble, and given my penchance for self-sabotage, I'll likely cross my own genres repeatedly and make my own blogging life difficult. Well, whatever, the whole thing is mostly for me, and I can't imagine any reader will particularly care what mode I'm writing in or how it's labeled or not, so we'll see how things go.

I have two other new blogs as well. Pieces in Progress (http://cheaplit.blogspot.com/) will contain the rough drafts of fiction I am working on, and Word Lumber (http://wordlumber.blogspot.com/) is my attempt, borrowed from Robert Bly, to write at least one poem a day for a year.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Dividing Lines

I live in a beautiful, quiet neighborhood that is convenient because it is only three blocks from the twelve-story building where I work. My neighbors are polite, civil; they are families, or single working people or students. There are a lot of dogs and kids. The grass is green right now; the street is lined with trees that populate the sidewalks and yards with brown, gold and deep red leaves through autumn.

Only a couple of blocks away from me is a main road that has heavier traffic, a few drug dealers, an occasional prostitute. Not too many blocks further from there are more notorious streets, rampant with drugs and gangs, and neighborhoods whose residents have to deal daily with poverty, theft, violence and murder.

The line dividing one from the other, though not strict or final but hazy and gray, is easily discerned by merely walking for five or ten minutes from my front porch. I am far from wealthy, so my situation isn't as stark as it might be for someone who lives in the suburbs, who might see the difference by taking a five or ten minute drive from his two-car garage, but the line, though sometimes indistinct and overlapping, is nevertheless there.

Various political ideologies provide contrary solutions in regard to lines that divide the haves from the have-nots, but none probably are able to offer an holistic view.

There are some who claim that poverty and its attendant grist, the statistical crimes that plague certain localities more than others, is fully the result of a sort of economic determinism. People are victims of their circumstances, and sometimes it is incumbent upon the state to change the structure of the economy in order to help them. Freedom encompasses the idea of breaking the socio-economic shackles that underpin the circumstances of whole segments of the population. The weight of obligation is laid upon everyone, and we are all responsible for each other.

This idea, however, does not seem to take into full account the totality of the human person, the interior struggle between right and wrong, the capacity for free-will and self-determination. Others, usually from a more religious base, latch onto the notion of human potential, and claim that in a free and democratic society, there are opportunities for those who are of sound mind and willing to work hard to lift themselves out of hardship. Usually, the latter view proposes the notion of a very limited government, private charity to help those who are willing to help themselves, and the assumption that as individual agents, freedom encompasses the idea that we have a right to own all that we earn, and each person is really only ultimately responsible for himself.

Like the lines that divide the haves from the have-nots, the simple geographies between those who are physically in a home or a car or a restaurant, and those who are homeless or car-less or starving, there are gradations of overlap and gray and variations of ideology between the two foregoing, generalized views. My personal opinion is that both views contain some truth, but both if adhered to stringently, if allowed to take the central operating status of the heart, informing all of one's politics or outlook or attitude towards wealth and poverty, are errors, sins, and insane. They are both forms of insatiable insobriety as well. Down in the viral domain of that kind of metaphor, I think I might rightly think of a Dennis Kucinich as a lush, and a Ron Paul as a raging drunk.

One could argue for the merits or demerits of both general outlooks endlessly, but as a Christian I think it is better to seek to establish another central reality in the heart than abstract ideology, and to live in the tension between being corrupt and incorrupt, of being in the world and not of it, rich in Christ and poor in spirit, rather than try to balance or syncretize views, or create a new, better or improved ideological program.

What should my attitude be towards the poor? or the criminal? Jesus said that when I address the poor, I am face to face with himself. When I visit the prisoner, who is there no doubt because of his crimes (and not merely his monetary debt as some heretics have maintained), it is Jesus I am visiting. What this means in detail or substance is cause for further exploration, but at this moment, in day to day life, I can take it at face value.

Men and women, whether rich or poor, are created in the image of God, and we are all called -- even amid our crimes, our drugs, our addictions, the various ways we prostitute and degrade ourselves in our pleasures or for money -- to share in His likeness, (whether we discursively believe in God or not). There is no dividing line here, we are all created in his image, we are all stained and defiled by our own self-centeredness (and our attendant lusts and addictions), and we are all called to share in his pure and undefiled, incorrupt likeness. So St. James writes, "pure and undefiled religion is this: to visit the widow and the orphan in their distress, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world."

Thursday, September 25, 2008


To vote or not to vote, for whom to vote, all sort of begs the question in a government by the people and for the people. This is especially true when it comes to moral issues and the tendency to politicize life for the purpose of purchasing political capital.

On the one side it isn't too far a reach to suggest we have a campaigner who thirsts for war and whose interests lay largely with corporate entities, not with the majority working class or the marginalized.

On the other side, we have a campaigner who is stridently opposed to the pro-life movement, and has strongly suggested that women are "punished" if prevented from aborting their offspring.

What choice does one have who is opposed both to the oppression of the poor, as well as to the marginalization and murder of the unborn?

One may cast a vote over a single issue, such as abortion or war or the economy or gay marriage, or cast a vote for an ethic such as egalitarianism or a consistent ethic of life, or for an ideology like that which is promulgated via the neo-conservative movement. What is missing is the substance that lay behind the vote, especially if one fosters the attitude that personal responsibility ends there -- an idea the power-brokers and cultural elite would happily have the public embrace.

Voting should not be a mere nod towards those with whom we agree and would like to have in power, as if we think the power they possess has the efficacy to truly engender permanent and progressive change (for the better). Casting a vote is reduced to casting a hook and line into a dark and troubled lake; one tends to catch whatever fate brings. A true democratic vote should not be viewed as the instigation of change, enacted once every two or four years as the penultimate motion of personal duty, nor should it foster connotatively within its own action the sum and purpose of citizenship. Rather, voting should be the denouement, the fulfillment, the acknowledgement of an entire lifestyle that is responsible, that is socially aware, and that in day to day experience effects real and lasting change.

When one votes morally, on the issues, and ideologically with the substance of his life and actions, it is far easier to see the distinctions between life as it is, and the bifurcating polarities that reduce existence to the left and to the right when it is falsely politicized.