30 January 2008

Quick Question For You

What was yellow--
the very color itself--
before there was an eye to see it,
or lips to lend it a name?

27 January 2008

A Weapon Against Time

Like writing, smoking belongs to that category of action that falls in between the states of activity and passivity—a somewhat embarrassed, embarrassing condition, unclean, unproductive, a mere gesture.

Richard Klein, Cigarettes Are Sublime

It's Sunday night, nine-ish. Today was the first in many that afforded me the mental release from accumulated and neglected duties, a release that had been denied me ever since I returned from the Christmas break. I shared a home-cooked meal with a few of my fellow seminarians, prepared by a native Indian priest working on his doctorate. Curry, tandoori chicken, pickled mango, nan and paratha bread, all washed down with an IPA for an imperial finish. I had to beg off from the ice cream run.

The Chicago frost has not broken for weeks. Just the right time to burn one on the balcony. The little handroller is right where it always is, top drawer of the dresser in my neighbor’s room. I consider myself justified in taking the liberty of a pinch from the jar of Norwegian shag on his shelf, though I couldn’t tell you why. He’s an understanding guy. Considering he also provided the IPAs for dinner, he won’t take the news about the tobacco so hard. The paper twists in the roller but it’s not worth making another one so I sweep the dresser clean with the edge of my hand and snag the zippo on my way out the door.

There’s three inches of snow on the balcony so I have to stand by the wall to keep the cold from seeping into my shoes, which means I can’t see as much of the sky as if were sitting on the balustrade with my legs hanging over the edge. A blue spruce towers over me, even up here on the third story. Behind him splay Orion and the Twins, still bright through the suburban glow to the southeast. Smudgy contrails trace out the ecliptic. The lighter rings, and my crippled cigarette surges to life.

The first woody mouthful of smoke is on my lips and gone before I have the time to savor it. The first pull is always the best, especially on a night such as this one. A cigarette in the cold (preferably February cold) is vastly superior to those enjoyed in other seasons. Every time I taste that first fresh glaze on my tongue, with a touch of grease from the lighter, I am in a stand of oaks and cedars on a little piece of land in southeast Kansas, where I once partook of the finest inhalation I can remember. Like tonight, it was solitary. Smoking in the company of others focuses one upon one’s companions and conversation, and distracts from the awareness of that which is smoked and its cosmic environs. That night my companions were only present to me in the raucous sound of male voices singing fast in unison, with a few hours of melodies behind them and several more to come. It must have been ninety degrees in the teepee, for as I strolled a few yards to stretch my legs, the crystalline prairie stillness seemed to hover just above the naked skin on my arms and face, unable to penetrate the invisible layer of heat and woodsmoke that clung to me. Then, as now, Orion and the Twins stood with me as I drew, and I watched them with watery eyes as smoke belched from a flap in the canvas.

It is a moment of solitude to think over the coming week. As the quarter draws to a close, it’s time to start putting together my schedule for the next one, a task that requires familiarity with the academic program and a facility in drawing the most efficient line from point A to point B—point A being were I am now and point B being ordination day with an “S.T.L.” after my name. I have neither of these gifts. Hence, I seek recourse from those further along the same path. They usually have prior academic backgrounds and seem to be a good deal smarter than I am. The fellow I’m seeking counsel from this evening has a mind capable of untold miserable hours of drudgery in the fruitful service of his understanding, and wouldn’t sacrifice any of it for such frivolous pastimes as blogging.

I, on the other hand, have needs.

In the course of the conversation with this impromptu guidance counselor, it becomes clear that I have a choice: take the courses that most interest me from the professors from whom I learn the most, or plot that most efficient path from A to B, and hope for the best. One or the other.

My reverie is interrupted by muffled machine gun fire and hollering from the common room just inside. Some of us manage to pick more frivolous pastimes than others.

As the joints in my fingers stiffen and the ember crawls along toward them, there is a moment of absurdity, in which my bewilderment and indecision reflect back upon me from the firmament. People once believed the stars determined the course of one’s life, a desperate attempt to find order in a situation where there appears to be none. There were some in the more recent past who were convinced that each choice, each motion, every last detail of life was the result of the playing out of immutable laws, so that whether Socrates sat or stood was inscribed in the motion of atoms and molecules billions of years ago that, by acting upon one another in predictable patterns, brought about the set of circumstances that made him choose one or the other. Though neither solution would offer me much consolation or hope, one can sympathize with the predicament. What’s left to me, indeed, what is the greater part, is trust in One who has made all out of Love.

The cherry singes the skin between my knuckles, signaling that the final hot breath is ready. I take one last draw, allowing a little cold air through my lips so it doesn’t scorch, drop the butt in the planter, and step back in to get some studying done for the week ahead.

When I get back to my room, I write a blog entry instead.

21 January 2008

A Fortuitous Coincidence of Dates

It's not been lost on many that MLKjr day and the March for Life, held each year on the anniversary of the Supreme Court's decision on Roe vs. Wade, happen to coincide. To add to the significance, I was sifting through my unread books the other day and finally started to tackle The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass after letting it sit on the shelf for years, as I tend to do with most of my purchases. It was a well-timed choice. There are a number of stirring passages in which the narrator, Douglass himself, describes the horrific treatment the black slaves received at the hands of even their more compassionate masters, which, when paired with the depth of interior dialogue, would not fail to stir all but the most callous of modern sensitivities. To hear Douglass’s owner correct his wife with great insistence when she was discovered to be teaching a slave boy to read with the admonition, “give a n----r an inch, and he’ll take an ell” brought the whole revolting institution into the sort of macro-focus intensity that did more to convey its perversion that any tally of statistics ever could have. To his great credit, Douglass set about from that very moment to do everything he could to make that “ell” his own.

Stepping into the South of the 1820s and 30s is to put oneself in a frame of mind so utterly contrary to that of the present age that it is difficult not to regard what I read about the treatment of slaves as fiction. It was an age when appearances were discounted as illusory. It must have been a powerful force indeed to persuade the mass of society that what appeared to be a human being in all respects save the color of its skin was, in fact, not one.

The parallel to the abortion issue in our own age is clear. It is surprising to many of us that there is a fairly large portion of our society that does not consider the unborn creature in the mother’s womb to be a human being, some going so far to say that even infants who have been living outside the womb fail to achieve that status, and do not possess an inalienable right to life if a parent wishes to withdraw it up to a certain (almost unavoidably arbitrary) moment in time. What appears to be self-evident to those who defend the rights of the unborn, namely the humanity of the unborn child, is very much in question for those who would preserve the right to abortion on demand, though there are exceptions to this generalization. Yet, in some way, this is a much more plausible refusal to justify in comparison to the proposed humanity of a black person, given that there is a substantial period in an infant’s gestation during which its resemblance to an adult human is at best difficult to discern. What was it that absolved the conscience of slaveholders who looked upon their property and saw a figure identical to themselves? What was it that overcame the instinctual urge to look upon a human being as devoid of any innate dignity or rights? To my mind, thoroughly schooled in the modern natural rights perspective, such blindness appeared impossible in good faith. When I came upon the following passage, however, some light was shed:

I had resided but a short time in Baltimore before I observed a marked difference, in the treatment of slaves, from that which I had witnessed in the country. A city slave is almost a freeman, compared with a slave on the plantation. He is much better fed and clothed, and enjoys privileges altogether unknown to the slave on the plantation. There is a vestige of decency, a sense of shame, that does much to curb and check those outbreaks of atrocious cruelty so commonly enacted on the plantation. He is a desperate slaveholder, who will shock the humanity of his non-slaveholding neighbors with the cries of his lacerated slave. Few are willing to incur the odium attaching to the reputation of being a cruel master …

Public opinion appears to have exerted tremendous influence upon the institution of slavery, and contained it, to some degree, within acceptable bounds. Slavery was, in varying degrees, condoned and even encouraged by religious authorities; several of Douglass’s owners were supposedly devout Christians. It is an independent mind indeed that can look at a cultural custom—one upon which the very economic lifeblood of the region depends—and conclude that what the mass has declared to be acceptable, and declares to be so day in and day out, is in fact deeply contrary to what it means to be human. To recognize this is a feat in itself; to speak against the overwhelming tide of general opinion with a criticism as devastating as the abolitionist critique is nothing short of superhuman. Yet it was done, often at great personal expense.

This drove home to me the overwhelming victory pro-choice advocates have achieved in getting abortion to be culturally acceptable. The prevailing opinion of society in this matter has worked to radically undermine the deep-seated instinct to hallow the personhood of another, just as it did in the case of slavery. One intuits that the great assembly of one's neighbors has a greater sense of right and wrong; how could so many be deceived? This has been so successful that even the bond between mother and unborn child, possibly one of the strongest possible interpersonal bonds, has proven too weak in tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions, of cases. The progressive accusation of "groupthink," so often directed at proponents of religion, here sounds like the pot calling the kettle black.

Yet there was a day when that despicable practice of enslavement ended. Later generations were given the task of addressing the persistent underlying attitudes that made it possible, but there was a day in history that it ended. Let us hope, pray, and work for just such a day of our own.

16 January 2008

Papal Theodicy

It can happen that someone is struck down with all sorts of illnesses and handicaps. Someone else’s life is made intolerably difficult by poverty. Yet another loses those on whose love his or her whole life depended. There can be all sorts of unhappiness. Then the danger is very great that the person concerned becomes embittered and says, ‘God just cannot be good, otherwise he wouldn’t be treating me like this. If God were to love me he would have created me differently and given me different qualities and made the circumstances of my life different.’

This kind of revolt against God is very understandable. Often assent to God seems almost impossible. But those who abandon themselves to this rebellion poison their lives. The poison of negation, of anger against God and against the world, eats them away from within. But God wants from us a down-payment of trust. He says to us, ‘I know you don’t understand me yet. But trust me: believe me when I tell you I am good and dare to live on the basis of this trust. Then you will discover that behind your suffering, behind the difficulties of your life, a love is hiding. Then you will know that precisely in this way I have done something good for you.’

Benedict XVI, The Yes of Jesus Christ

14 January 2008

Fractal Xylem

It's midterm week so my planned posting will have to wait. Until then, I thought I'd put this photo up. It was taken hiking down from a peak this August, just outside of Aspen; I had gotten tired of the sweeping landscapes (doesn't take long) and started getting down on my hands and knees. This was one of those photos that seemed interesting at the time, and I still like the wood grain and the edges of the outer layer of bark flowing in over an old wound. Compositionally it's not much to speak of but it struck me just this evening that the very same phenomenon I have repeatedly noticed in silhouetted trees was present here. Being from the plains, it's common to see large, isolated oaks or elms black against the winter sky, and without any leaves on it's much easier to see the tree's skeletal structure. Ever since I looked at a live chicken embryo under a microscope, the obvious similarities to microscopic vein structure in the macroscopic branching of trees has captivated me ever since.

What is so fascinating about this photo is that if you have ever looked at an alpine lake from 30,000 feet, you have seen basically the same thing as what you see here; only now, it is carved by the very tree itself into its own flesh on a thousandth of the scale.

Though the tree/blood vessel similarity is more clearly an example of one physical law at work on vastly different scales, and this is more of a coincidence than anything, nonetheless it is a marvelous phenomenon.

06 January 2008

NC08 From the Inside

After four years of involvement with the Fellowship of Catholic University Students, I was able to attend a conference for the first time this past weekend.

This was not for lack of opportunities—they held four conferences in the last five years (six conferences, actually, if you count the regional ones in 2006). This one was the fourth at which I was present, yet it is an understatement that as a staff member, I certainly was not in attendance at any of them. The pressures of conducting the event in collaboration with the other missionaries were too great to allow for much real receptivity to the gathering and the movements of grace throughout. Never before was I aware of the magnitude this privation.

For the first time, conference permitted me to pray. This was not a result of the way we all prayed; FOCUS has always leaned more towards styles of prayer that did not attract me. Yet this year, it did not matter. The intense devotion was plain, and anyone with sense was aware of it, could recognize it, saw it ebb at points and rise at others, the climax of which was always in the liturgy. And this time there were no talks to prepare, no events to fine-tune, no organization necessary to make sure dozens of students got where they were supposed to go, or last-minute pitches to reluctant potential staff-members. A certain unreality hung about the place. Part of that was not leaving the building for four days—though this gave me the distinct pleasure of savoring the taste of fresh air after getting nothing but the reconstituted stuff for so long. In another way, though, it was the conviction that the total submersion in this intensely planned world of talks and vendors and wall-to-wall custom carpeting was not to last, and should not last. Drink, and move on. Be about your business. The real work is yet to begin.

The family members of missionary staff were in remarkably high attendance, a first. One family I know piled five children in a van and hauled them from Nebraska. The thing is, families know when someone changes. When something different in one, all notice; if they are good changes, they are also intriguing ones. What caused this? they ask. Where did this come from? This is the child or sibling or friend I know, but there is a difference, and it is one I like. Perhaps I, too, should see the source from whence this freshness flows. I, too, will come and see.

There were students all about, and I was free to sit with those whose personal history had intersected with my own, and to hear what has become of them these last few years. Missionaries know there is no blame cast on those who do not stay in touch; that people lose track of one another pronounces no verdict on the authenticity of their friendship while it was a plain fact to both. The testament to this is the ease with which the darkened rooms of the soul are warmed by the tiny candleflame rekindled by stumbling over an old friend in the murk while shuffling about, each straining to catch the failing light in the corners of their eyes.

There is a distinct memory of a day when, in the midst of discernment over whether or not to throw in my lot with this bunch, I was intrigued by the thought of the faces of the people I would be given to know, to influence, and to be influenced by. They were all figments of my imagination then, adorned with cartoonish grins of adulation. They have since been retouched with a more realistic tone. The people with whom I was given to live and work, who once were mere guesses, are real. Some of them had changed since last I saw them, others were comfortably the same, and still others were discernible (along with another’s) in the round and fleshy bobblehead of their first or second child. Each had their own place within me, shaped me, are me. Out of their magnetism or repulsion, and that of many, many others, somehow a uniqueness is shaped. An unrepeatable instance of God’s creativity, each and all.

In the midst of all this, it was hard to decide whether the circumstances of our age that have made relocation so commonplace—even mandatory—are desirable. At what point does exposure to people from so many places and backgrounds cease to enrich? Is there a time when one loses a stable identity and learns little more than to step from one world to another, to navigate the world rather than to be a part of it? There is a certain violence to being thrust back into situations and relationships that were once terribly formative but are now more like the rings of an oak—to revisit them involves a rupture of subsequent progress. That is not to say that they are not intensely pleasurable or regrettable in any way, but simply that our here-today-gone-tomorrow world has made such situations standard. At such times, it is a source of refreshment to contemplate with anticipation the place where I will die: where I will leap from becoming into permanence, sped along by those with whom long friendships have mellowed with time.

This seems a strange way to end a post on the national conference, but really, what more was it about? What more is there to hope for than a long life filled with companions fueled by the love of Christ, perhaps some of them ignited by one’s own flame, remembered and offered as one breathes the last “Amen”?