Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Elder Barsanuphius of Optina

The Elders of Optina Monastery have had a tremendous impact on Russian Society, evoking a nationwide blossoming of sanctity.  During the course of a century, their prophecy and God-illumined counsel attracted spiritual seekers from far and wide.

Elder Barsanuphius (1845-1913), a man gifted with great intelligence and compassion, came to monasticism only at the age of forty-five, after having served his homeland as a colonel in the army.  During a near-fatal illness the grace of God touched him and, in the words of Elder Nektary, "From a brilliant solder, in one night, by the will of God he became a great Elder."

He made his way to Optina and met with Elder Ambrose, who, forseeing his future greatness, blessed him to enter the Skete of Optina, where he became the disciple of Elder Anatole.  Due to his many talents and natural leadership, he was eventually made Superior of the Skete, and was a true father to the monks entrusted to his care.  Especially touching was the paternal relationship he had with his disciple Nicholas, the future Elder and confessor Nikon.  Like the other Elders, Fr. Barsanuphius was also a grace-filled guide for the enormous number of pilgrims who hastened to Optina for spiritual nourishment from every corner of Russia.  He was clarvoyant to a remarkable degree, and was thus able to reveal the hidden and forgotten sins of those who came to him, enabling them to purify their consciences.

I have found the entire series on these Elders fascinating and feel the presence of the Holy Spirit as I read about these Spirit filled Saints.  Bro. Dave

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Home from the War

Much effort is being made to give the veterans of military service in Iraq and Afghanistan a warmer welcome home than what the Vietnam Vets experienced. In many places the church is stepping up to its responsibility to provide care of the souls shattered by that service, and bodies too. PTSD, traumatic brain injury, uncontrollable rages, inability to re-adapt to civilian life, frustration with the VA, marriages which cannot take the stress -- all these now become components of pastoral care as well as medical care.

Still most of the attention is going to the men: men who no longer wear the pants in the family, men who are violent with their wives, men who turn to drink and drugs to self-medicate. Military women don't get so much ink. Army, Navy, Coasties, Airmen and Marines with time in Iraq are male and female now, with women carrying heavy weapons and operating heavy equipment and bringing home emotional loads just as heavy as those of their battle brothers. Journalist Kirsten Holmstedt has made it her mission to lift up the cause and the need of our sisters at arms, whom she follows during their service in theater in Band of Sisters and after their return stateside in The Girls Come Marching Home.

We who are civilians ministering to parishioners returned from deployment need to read these accounts in reverse order, taking up The Girls Come Marching Home first to get an idea of what is going on with those who sit in our pews or who may perhaps make it as far as our counseling spaces. We'll all be involved in this ministry in one way or another as we prepare for yet another surge of troops, yet another round of family separations. As the former mayor of New York said when he looked over the World Trade Center ruins, "this will be a burden that none of us can bear."

Monday, September 28, 2009

Imitatio Christi: The Inner Life

Penguin Press has brought out a series of reprints from a dozen of their well loved well worn classic texts under the series title Great Ideas. The lone overtly Christian volume among the Great Ideas is The Inner Life, containing books one through three of Thomas a Kempis' Imitation of Christ, beautifully translated by Leo Sherley-Price. It's an ideal book to sample on a quiet day, to read on a retreat day, or to engage with during a longer time of retreat. The first book provides practical suggestions for spiritual awareness in everyday living. The second book provides further suggestions for disposing oneself to contemplative experience. And when one is ready and has time, the third book guides deeper prayer through a dialogue between Christ and the Disciple on the care and cares of the soul. This tiny little Penguin volume packs a wallop and is a worthwhile purchase for anyone seeking to grow in prayer.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Thessaly - Witch for Hire

Yes, my friends, I have finally succumbed. I have finally read a graphic novel. Right now, I don't know why it took me so long. It was a fun book, a quick read, with engaging characters and a deft touch of humor.

The Sandman Presents: Thessaly - Witch for Hire is a story of one of the characters from Neil Gaiman's series The Sandman. The art is by Bill Willingham and Shawn McManus, and I found it beautiful and engaging. This is definitely a book for older teens and adults, as there is some minor nudity and three or four swear words.

Thessaly is the oldest witch in the world, having lived since the beginning of mankind. She is extremely powerful, having studied every tradition of magic and religion that has been. Because she is so old, Thessaly values her privacy; she finds that whenever she is involved in a showdown with evil or destruction, she must move on rather than becoming a local celebrity and drawing more attention to herself.

As the story in this graphic novel opens, Thessaly is out shopping in a small Italian tourist town and returns home to find a vicious serpent-monster there. A ghost acquaintance appears -- Fetch -- professing his undying love for Thessaly. The problem is, he is the one responsible for the monster that she has just fought... and for the 30 monsters that have come after her for the last two years. Even worse, it turns out that Fetch has contracted Thessaly and himself to destroy the one undestroyable creature in the entire universe.

Since I had not read any of The Sandman comics, there were a number of references that I did not quite understand. Thankfully, these didn't detract too much from the flow of the story, which was fast and packed with action. Thessaly and Fetch are intriguing characters, and I'm interested in reading more of their story. If you need something light to escape into, and you have 45 minutes or so, you may find Thessaly - Witch for Hire a great way to spend that time.

Friday, September 25, 2009

The Talmud and the Internet

The Talmud and the Internet is subtitled A Journey Between Worlds, by Jonathan Rosen

It joins the past to the present, and the living to the dead. It is the Easter Vigil, and the Talmud, and also the Internet. It transcends time and space, life and lifespan, the way of Art and the path of Science. This little gem of a book is poetry in motion, metaphysics in counterpoint with thermodynamics, the lost world of Eastern Europe and the lost world of Modern America. Jonathan Rosen writes with disarming simplicity and with overwhelming love of life. The poets among us will identify with his journey. Those of us not so gifted will wish to observe silence as these words are read to us in refectory, surfing to scenes of Mont Saint Michel and Chartes as we listen on mp3 while munching our solitary sandwiches at our workstations. The technogeek and the Talmudist are one.

Buy this book. Eat this book. Open and close this book. You will find, in the words of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, that you have taken away only as much as a dog laps from the ocean.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Nothing but Neurons?

The Astonishing Hypothesis: the scientific search for the soul, by Francis Crick.

What is man? asks the psalmist. Dr. Francis Crick, credited with the discovery of DNA, as an experimental scientist proposes in response a hypothesis: the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. This he calls The Astonishing Hypothesis. Should the hypothesis be proven true, should we turn out to be entirely explainable as a great chain of interconnecting neurons, we would be astonished, wouldn't we? Haven't we always throughout history insisted that there must be something more, that we must be something more than the physiological self?

Dr. Crick invites his general public reader to a gentle exposition of the investigations of neuroscience, placing vision, consciousness and memory up front and then moving into a clearly illustrated introduction to neuroanatomy which takes up the bulk of this book. His question seems to shift as the book progresses from asking what is seeing? what is vision? what is understanding? to a discussion of how the organs and processes within the brain operate visual signal reception and memory storage. He stops at the cellular level; the mathematical equations and chemical formulae needed to go smaller are beyond the hypothetical reader's expertise.

The concluding chapter, "Dr. Crick's Sunday Morning Service," lays down a challenge to philosophers, psychologists, believers and scientists alike: Disprove my astonishing hypothesis. Go ahead, lay out your evidence, show me! Do you find it Astonishing that we might be no more than neural networks? Crick finds it downright Astonishing, but astonishing is not a synonym for untrue. He allows that most hypotheses are disproven or at least altered by further investigation and he expects no less in this case, concluding that perhaps neither his own hypothesis nor that of faith against science will prevail but that truth may well lie in a third alternative, in a yet to be elucidated understanding of who we are.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Dynamic Duo

Unbowed: a Memoir by Wangari Muta Maathai
Iran Awakening by Shirin Ebadi

Global level prizes like the MacArthur genius grants announced today or the Nobels bring book lovers like me a world away the gift of engaging with truly creative minds and souls. I had never heard of Shirin Ebadi before she won the Nobel in 2003, nor of the 2004 laureate Wangari Maathai. Nor had they heard of each other, though their efforts are now joined in the Nobel Women's Initiative. Their stories here made available to a distant readership are so remarkably similar. Their global readers form a key element of protection: neither woman will be clapped into jail again without the whole world watching.

Professionally qualified at the highest levels of their chosen fields, microbiology for Maathai and the judiciary for Ebadi, both women hit the glass ceiling hard and bounce back. Unbowed, Maathai's story, traces her lateral move from university faculty to development official and ultimately to Parliament. Iran Awakening begins from Ebadi's loss of her seat on the bench as a result of the 1979 revolution and follows her through a dynamic career as a human rights lawyer and advocate for political reform, which now in 2009 may be leading her also to seek office. One comes from secular urban Teheran, the other from the thatched huts of a Kikuyu village, yet the narratives are nearly identical.

Both of these are good reads, well written, fine choices for days on which we may want some inspiration to keep on when we've hit the wall ourselves or crashed once again into that proverbial ceiling.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Peace is My Last Gift to You

I read Tuesdays with Morrie when it first came out, but I have not been sufficiently inspired to pick up The Last Lecture or Teddy Kennedy's dying memoirs. When I heard that President Obama had delivered a letter from Senator Kennedy to the Pope I had a feeling I knew what it was, what it turned out to be, a request for his intercession. Please pray for me. It brought to mind a book I have on the shelf for later in my life, for the time when I shall need it more than now. The book is The Gift of Peace by the late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin.

I had the great good fortune to spend some of my more active years in the peace movement inspired to action by Cardinal Bernardin, first as bishop and then as archbishop. Here was one who was unafraid to testify within the church and to the church at the same time. Here was one who remained within the catholic tradition and still managed to speak truth to power as simply as a lifelong Quaker might. That's what I first thought this book might be about, a Catholic in the peace movement.

Not so. This is a book about a Catholic at peace. Cardinal Bernardin's cancer diagnosis occasioned his own peace movement, from external labors to a remarkable inner peace I so hope I may find for myself when the time comes. When it became known that the Cardinal was dying people from all over sent him letters: not letters of their prayers for him, but letters like Ted Kennedy's asking his prayers for themselves. Here is his response:
"What people have seen in the papers or on television has not been a man who wants to look brave or courageous. What they see is a man who believes in God and whose faith informs everything he does. Suffering and pain make little sense to me without God, and my heart goes out to people who feel abandoned or alone in their greatest times of need."
I pray God that I may increase every day in compassion like that, that I may like my old friend live the life God has given me here so that people will want to ask my prayers as I go, so that I can join my own life to Christ's great offering of love.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Brooklyn a Novel by Colm Toibin

Here is Brooklyn in its early 1950s finery, decked out with burgeoning populations of newly arrived Jews, Irish, Italians and southerners all crowding into adjoining neighborhoods full of shops, full of houses of worship, full of children, full of new and wondrously diverse life. Colm Toibin describes everydayness better than any Brownie camera snapshot possibly could. He simply stands in one place and tells you the reader everything he sees....everything. He moves to the next place and does the same, and again and again.

In this novel he follows a young girl of nineteen from her mother's house in Ireland onto a boat to Liverpool, through a day in Liverpool after which her elder brother sees her off on the ship to America, on the transatlantic crossing, to a boarding house in Brooklyn. Toibin follows her to work as a department store shop girl, to night school at Brooklyn College, to a church dance where she meets her Tony, to Coney Island, to bed, and on her return home to Ireland, from the family graveyard to the crux of the matter: will she stay or will she go?

Toibin's gift for descriptive writing is on a par with Ian McEwan's: the two simply focus the camera differently, with McEwan intently frontlighting the woman herself (thinking here of Briony in Atonement) as she moves from time to time and place to place, and Toibin backlighting the woman by his intricate and intimate description of her changing surroundings. The result's the same: a beautiful story, a beautiful book.

This is my first read of Toibin and certainly not the last. He has five other novels out, one of which along with Brooklyn was listed for the Man Booker prize. I see by the frontispiece however that he also has a number of nonfiction works out, including one called The Sign of the Cross: Travels in Catholic Europe. I'll be looking out a copy of that one.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Dan Brown's Lost Symbol

As I sat down and opened the book, a large black cat jumped onto my lap. While that cat does live here, another black cat promptly appeared on page 26, making its rounds in the Capitol basement. What happens to the cat we never do learn, though we proceed for the next five hundred pages on a fully guided educational tour of subterranean Washington. It brings a whole new level of meaning to the labyrinthine corridors of power in the nation's capital.

What the Da Vinci Code was to the Knights Templars, Lost Symbol is to American Freemasonry which may wish to condemn this book or refuse to comment and just hope it will go away. The better comparison, though, is to Margaret Truman's whodunits like Murder in the National Cathedral. If you know D.C., if you love D.C., you will be able to follow this story monument by monument through the Federal Triangle and out to the edge of the Beltway. The characters are caricatures; the plot has them running madly from point A to point B to point C as they decipher clues against the clock of inevitable doom should they fail.

This is the secret: Jehovah is the Holy One and that truth lies within the Order, praise God.

This is the mystery: How Dan Brown managed to write a truly nonpartisan book about Washington, which he has quite successfully done. There are plenty of people with agendas here but neither Republicans nor Democrats are in control. The White House makes a cameo appearance only as a reference point for another location four blocks away where true power resides.

No great literary merit here but it's a decent piece of escape fiction -- if you know the city.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Life Together, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose feast day we observed at Annual Chapter this year, was a Lutheran priest in Germany. He was imprisoned at the Tegel military prison and the Buchenwald concentration camp, before being executed at the Flossenbürg concentration camp.

Subtitled A Discussion of Christian Fellowship, Life Together discusses life as an intentional community of Christians, giving practical recommendations for living out our Christian calling as individuals and corporately. This is a slim volume, and though the content is not light fare it is a quick read. My copy was published in 1954, and it was a pleasure to detect that old-book smell each time I turned a yellow-edged page. Comprising an Introduction and five chapters, Life Together advises us on what a Christian Community is, how to spend The Day With Others, how to use The Day Alone, how to exercise our Ministry, and how to celebrate Confession and Communion.

As I read, I was amazed at the practicality of Bonhoeffer's direction, being reminded strongly of the practicality of the Rule of St. Benedict. Though someone steeped in the monastic tradition may not need direction in how to establish a discipline of daily prayer, not every Christian has this background and learning. Bonhoeffer is direct and specific in what should be included in daily prayer: a section of the Psalter, a reading from Scripture, a hymn or song, prayers together for the community and for each person's concerns, and the fellowship of the table. I say table with a small-t because while Jesus did institute the Lord's Supper, which we celebrate at God's Table each week in the Eucharist, Bonhoeffer points out that Jesus was also intentional and deliberate about breaking bread and sharing in the fellowship of the table with his disciples, with his friends, with so-called undesirables, and even with legalistic hypocrites. Bonhoeffer tells us that our prayer as a community is not complete until we have shared the fellowship of the table, honoring our community, remembering the Last Supper, and keeping in mind the eternal Feast in heaven.

In addition to practical advice on personal devotion, the shared work of the community, and our work away from the community as individuals, Bonhoeffer describes seven ministries that are crucial for living in community:
  • The Ministry of Holding One's Tongue
  • The Ministry of Meekness (rather like the extended chapter on Humility in St. Benedict's Rule)
  • The Ministry of Listening
  • The Ministry of Helpfulness
  • The Ministry of Bearing
  • The Ministry of Proclaiming
  • The Ministry of Authority
Of course, in any community -- Christian or not -- the gifts for these ministries will not be equally shared, and yet each is important for each member of the community. The ordering of these ministries is intentional. It is difficult to exercise meekness or humility if one has not learned when to be silent. It is hard to really listen if one hasn't truly learned yet that one is not really the center of the universe, that others have needs and are important. And we can't help others if we haven't listened to them; when we do this, we're really just trying to make ourselves feel good.

When I finished reading this book and set it down, I was incredibly inspired and amazed at this. I had expected it to be a fairly basic and boring read -- blah blah, pray daily, yadda yadda, eat meals together, blah blah, love one another. Yes, this does make up much of the book. On the other hand, Bonhoeffer's guidance in Life Together has applicability far beyond a monastery or other group of Christians living in intentional community.

In my current parish -- and in every other parish I've been to more than once or twice -- I've noticed members who struggle with how to integrate their faith and spirituality into their home lives. We all hunger to express our faith in everything we do, but we don't know how to do this. Parents especially want to help form their children in the Christian faith, to establish strong and meaningful traditions, to guide them in how to behave and how to live in relationship. While Bonhoeffer is not intending this book as a guide for families -- who are, after all, not living together so much intentionally as completely by accident! -- but for those who make the decision and commitment to live together as Christians. But his advice is widely applicable to any home. A full chapter from the bible can be too much for a four-year-old, but a well-loved bible story is just right. While a family might not come together for dinner together every night, having breakfast at the table together each morning might work. Bonhoeffer expresses one way of living in community, but these ideas and recommendations can be adapted to any home.

I am lit on fire with the idea of writing a series of pieces on living together as a Christian family, using the advice Bonhoeffer gives in this little book. I'd like to help parents and families find these practical ways to live together as a Christian community, here in 21st century America. There are so many wonderful gems in these 150 pages.

Baptismal Ecclesiology Revisited

Looking for Salvation at the Dairy Queen
, by Susan Gregg Gilmore

The title's of course a throwback to Fannie Flagg's Fried Green Tomatoes. But seeing as how this book is about a small town in north Georgia where the only place for kids to go is Dairy Queen, and I live in a smaller town in south Georgia where Dairy Queen had no competition until last fall when we were blessed with a Taco Bell, I had to give it a try. The critics got this one wrong. It's more like a rough draft than a stellar literary debut.

The story you might have guessed. Girl grows up knowing no better foretaste of heaven than Dilly Bars at the DQ, though she lives for the day she can escape nowheresville and head off to Atlanta. Family circumstances mandate her return, and wouldn't you know she has an epiphany after the soda jerk at DQ explains what she's been missing in life.

In such a town one is expected to accept Jesus and be saved, then take part in a river baptism. Our heroine is pushed under the waves by her preacher father whom she suspects of complicity in her mother's drowning some years before. She acts out and acts up and winds up restricted from the DQ for the rest of the summer. All the way to heaven is anything but heaven.

The insistent voices who tell us that our spiritual lives are built upon the holiness of baptism and the community that rite engenders don't live in a small Georgia town trying to emerge from drowning in maudlin sentimentality. As one friend now a cathedral dean observes, "if that water's so great then why is the preacher wearing duck waders?" Baptism's an ordeal that everybody has to go through. When grace does happen, where it happens is Dairy Queen.


I just love the beautiful places of America, a love I acquired from my mother. On family vacations in the iconic three seater station wagon of the fifties and sixties we must have seen half of the national parks. My parents covered most of the rest during thirty years of active Elderhosteling. As I turn the pages of Dayton Duncan's new coffee table companion book to the Ken Burns PBS series "Our National Parks, America's Best Idea" I'm taken back over and over again to my childhood. Photo after photo...I know that place! I've been there.

I bought the book as a birthday gift for Mom, her 83rd coming up this month, but I now want one for myself to savor at leisure. The contemporary photography is just as beautiful as expected -- though I wish they'd printed foldouts instead of losing the center of the most spectacular views in the binding -- but I did not expect the delightful discovery that most of the photography here is historic. There's conversation with travelers from now and from ago, lots of discussion with the people who have given their lives to the preservation of the parks, plenty of food for meditation and action alike.

What's moved me most are the glacier photos. It's impossible to see the snowfields now and not see them melting away. A chapter called "The Morning of Creation" features a lone crystalline iceberg floating in the blue-cold water of Glacier Bay. By now it will be gone, as are some of the arches of Utah shown here still brilliantly parabolic against the pastel western sky.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Cornucopia At Home

The latest addition to the vegetarian cookbook collection, from Ireland's leading veggie eatery "Cornucopia" in Dublin. Something here for all types of anglican herbivores from Rite I (nut roasts) to Rite II (drizzles and dots of odd sauces) and of course the dessert course (pudding for you Brits). Well worth the rather hefty price tag, especially if you like wild mushrooms and leeks.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Beggars in Spain

Nancy Kress's novel Beggars in Spain is a fascinating work of speculative fiction. In this novel, Kress explores the idea of creating a genetic modification that allows humans to lack the need for sleep. These Sleepless children grow from babies who, in the absence of night nurses and tutors, cry all night long from boredom, into adolescents and adults. Humanity discovers the many advantages the Sleepless have -- virtually no decay at the basic cellular level, few signs of aging, centuries of life -- and becomes fearful of and hostile toward this small group of individuals. Discrimination and hatred grow until finally, all but two of the Sleepless in the world escape to a space station they call Sanctuary.

I've read this story several times now, and this time I was really disappointed by the lack of any real spirituality. Imagine what you would see from someone like Teresa of Ávila or Thomas Aquinas or Hildegard of Bingen or even the ecstatic Persian poet Hafez, if they had all those nighttime hours available to them!

Instead, most of the Sleepless live by a doctrine espoused by the fictional creator of unlimited cheap energy, Kenzo Yagai. Yagaiism is based on individual achievement, with the basic unit of relationship being the contract. The question is posed several times in the novel, what do we owe to those who can give nothing in return? What do we owe to those who not only have nothing to give in return, but would kill us and seize all that we have anyway? When this question is posed to the main character, Leisha Camden, it is worded What do we owe to the beggars in Spain? This question comes up several times in the novel as a thread that runs through the story; Leisha struggles with this question, because it does not fit into the Yagaiist framework through which she views the world. The Sleepless on their fortified space station of Sanctuary answer emphatically: absolutely nothing.

Of course, as Christians, we know what we owe to the beggars in Spain, because Jesus tells us. We owe them everything. The gospels tell us the very basics, which have become the Corporal Works of Mercy in the Catholic tradition: feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, take care of the sick, visit those in prison. Even if those beggars would knock us down and steal our clothes and money, even if they would invade our home and eat our food, even if they were lying sick on our doorstep, even if tossed into jail for crimes like sleeping on a park bench -- even then, it's our job to take care of them. Eventually, Leisha finds this answer; naturally, it is the work of a lifetime... or more.

Kress has written two more novels that follow this one: Beggars and Choosers and Beggars Ride. I have not read these yet, but now I'm curious.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Olive Kitteridge

Just finished this collection of 13 stories, in all of which a middle school math teacher named Olive makes an appearance, starring the residents of a small town in Maine. Like Peyton Place only real. I read the first six one at a time and then stayed up till 4am unable to put the book down. It won author Elizabeth Strout the Pulitzer in 2009, deservedly.