Late last winter and into early spring I began doodling. When new life finally emerged from the cold earth I began using color and started painting. Here is a series of drawings I did:
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and that I think I am following your will does not mean I am actually doing so.
But I believe the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all I am doing. I hope I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
Thomas Merton, O.C.S.O, Thoughts in Solitude (1958)
If you haven’t noticed, I have been wrestling with the Big Things here lately: ‘God’ and life and death and judgement and hell and mercy and the nature of the Mystery beyond our ken, somehow a Person or Persons, who ‘is’ Love.
This isn’t academic theology. I have done that, and I was pretty good at it. At least my professors thought so.
This is rawer, the aftermath of the deconstruction of last winter, which was a sort of frigid sacramental purgatory, a Polar Vortex of the soul, an elemental wrestling with being and experience and beauty and the mystery of evil.
That sounded way too dramatic. But unexpected changes, when one is pretty settled, are disconcerting, even when they are a blessing. And lately I have become aware that everyone’s life is an epic.
Creatures from the Tilted Planet
It occurs to me that we are so benighted that we do not even know the answer to the most fundamental question about the Cosmos.
Which is: are humans, and the earth, unique? It is evident that humans, unlike every other created being who is not in close association with humans -like dogs or veal calves- from the billion year old dense thing we call ‘a rock’, to the hundred year old still and silent being we call ‘tree’, are alone in feeling inner conflict, alone in spinning narratives to navigate Reality, alone in creating illusory worlds inside our heads.
So the Question is: is the fact that humans are so evidently fucked up in spite of the beauty and harmony we can perceive in What Is, the created world untouched by Humans, mean that this is probably the condition of ‘intelligent’ species wherever they exist, if they do exist? Does the ability to restructure -and distort- creation the way that humans do on earth inevitably coexist with inner conflict and moral blindness?
Or is Humanity unique?
After all, our planet is tilted on its axis: everything is skewed.
Plus, our hearts are off center.
In other words, we have no idea of where we exist within the universe.
We do not know very much at all, in fact, about that universe.
What kind of place IS this?
Knowing so little, from whence come human pride and hubris?
If St Thomas had lived longer he would have burnt the Summa.
I know it sounds racist, but I like black people. I have always had an easy rapport with black folks, especially with black women. I have never met a black woman whom I did not like. And black women like me, the whitest white guy ever.
Not that I knew any black people growing up. As a young kid I lived one block west of North Saginaw Street in Flint. Saginaw was at that time the dividing line between black and white in highly segregated Flint: east of that street was black, west was white. The closest I ever got to black people was driving through their neighborhoods. A single vivid image, from when I was maybe five, remains embedded in my memory: driving by a crowd of black children playing in a circle. There, in the middle of this segregated world, was a little white girl, dancing with the others. This, in maybe 1958.
Later we moved to a small town that was in the early stages of suburbanization. The schools were all white until my junior year of high school, when a black family miscalculated, thinking they were buying a home in the neighboring, integrated town. Instead they were on the wrong side of the district dividing line, and their children went to our schools.
They must have been terrified the first day of school, but they were very popular; sort of the novelty kids. Our town may have been racist in the general unreflected way that was America at that time, but there was room for two middle class black kids, who after all could not have been a threat even if they were so inclined.
And then I went off to college, a white kid from an all but white town, and I was assigned to three, count ‘em, three, black suite mates.
There was my roommate, Rodney, who was president of the Black Student Union and a fellow revolutionary. He was serious and studious. I never saw him partying and I never saw him with a girl.
One of the guys in the other room was a jock, a little guy who nevertheless was an excellent basketball player. I often saw him partying and he was quite the lady’s man.
Then there was Reggie.
Reggie was more a street tough than the other two, who were serious students. Reggie liked to smoke pot and he liked to listen to music. I think we were curious about one another, and we spent a lot of time getting high and sharing music. I introduced him to my music, to the Airplane, early Pink Floyd, Hendrix, The Who, the Stones, and to other more obscure artists like the Millenium, Pearls Before Swine, Hearts and Flowers, to the wealth of what was a very creative time in music (we are talking 1971).
He, in return, showed me a whole world of great music of which I had been completely unaware: Sun Ra, Gil Scott Heron, the Last Poets, Marvin Gaye, Leon Thomas, Pharoah Sanders, Miles Davis, Les McCann, and more.
This was revelatory. A whole new world of music opened for me, and I have often offered thanks for what he shared.
Reggie and I both dropped out after freshman year; as far as I know the other two finished college, and I would be very surprised if Rodney is not very successful at whatever he he put his mind to.
I did not stay in touch with any of them, however. But I still love all the new sounds Reggie introduced me to, and I am forever grateful; here is a sampling:
Art by Mati Klarwein
The General Principle
I am pretty sure that the Sunni Muslim militants who are killing Shi’a Muslims in Iraq and Syria do not think that the Shi’a worship the same god that they do, even though they profess to follow the same prophet and read the same scriptures. And the Shi’a, who are arming to defend themselves, do not think that the Sunnis know Allah at all.
Don’t get smug, Christians. It was not too long ago, historically, that Protestants and Catholics were spilling one another’s blood, in the assumption that the Other was the enemy of God and worthy of destruction.
And for that matter, now Russians and Ukrainians, the children of Holy Rus, claiming to worship the same god, using the same rite, cousins if not siblings, are killing one another.
Humans. Wondrously made and capable of sacrificial love, wonder, works of great beauty, truth and goodness.
And pretty reliably prone to get it all wrong, or to get it right and then to totally fuck everything up.
This is not the Calvinist doctrine of Total Depravity.
It is the General (and Catholic) Principle of Human Fuckupedness (GPHF).
Which in polite company we call the General Principle of Human Fallenness.
Which Principle is Tolerable
Only because it must be accompanied by a universalism wherein the wondrous Mystery we call ‘God’ is a Being of such grace and compassion, whose essence is Love, a Love that is so beyond whatever came into your mind at the word ‘Love’, that it is incomprehensible.
The Mystery we call ‘God’ loves and understands us, poor babies, and wants us to be whole.
Like any father would, with children who are half-blind, retarded, and ornery.
I think of my three year old, Will, the former radiant sweet baby, born on his mommy’s birthday. A preternaturally good natured baby, and a delightful two year old, when he hit three he discovered a whole new way of being, one that included throwing fits, defying his parents, and generally acting up.
But he is three. Even his bad behavior is endearing.
I am a sinful human, but I would not in a million years stick him in a dark closet and torture him with fire.
Not for five minutes, let alone all eternity.
If God’s ways are not ours, it definitely does not mean that he is meaner than us, or less merciful than we are.
Any God worth the name cannot torment His beloved children. Whatever ‘hell’ is, it is not something God does.
On the Other Hand
I guess, though, that I am not a complete universalist, as I am pretty sure that Jean Calvin is not in Heaven.
Unless he changed what he believes a lot, he simply would not fit in, nor would he feel at home at all with the riff raff he would find there.
Though he may think he is, in fact, in Heaven, pacing, all alone in the dark, the lone Chosen Asshole.
Painting by James Young, of Granville, Ohio.
I walk every day in the woods, at the dead end of a road on my route.
I never went further down the trail than it took to discreetly piss until this spring. Then, in the wake of an epic winter, one day I noticed the little green leaves on the underbrush, like a thin veil strung through the woods. I walked further back and found that there was a small stream and a hemlock grove growing on the slope of a small ravine. There is a highway maybe a hundred yards to the east, but when there is a lull in traffic and I can hear the sounds of the wind in the leaves and the soothing lull of the water it is like being in the northern Michigan of my childhood or the Appalachian foothills of my youth.
The other day, shortly after my afternoon break in the woods, I felt something on my neck. It was a tick, and he was bloated with my blood.
I reacted quickly and instinctively, ripping him off my flesh, leaving his head in my skin.
I sort of panicked; ‘Lyme disease’ was the first phrase that came to mind. Then I thought, well, I have been bitten many times by ticks in my youth and nothing ever came of it.
But the dialogist within supplied the information that Lyme disease is apparently a more recent development; that’s why we did not suffer the consequences now attendant to a tick bite.
I began to fret, and almost immediately accepted it: if God -or whatever you call He/She/It/They- wants to afflict me with a debilitating disease I bow to it.
But Dear God, I am the guy arguing that You are not an asshole, not the evil monster so many who say they are Yours claim that You are.
If this is laid on me on top of everything else I might find it hard to defend You. In fact, given all the suffering in this world defending You is already hard enough.
I am praying more.
With fewer words.
Mostly “Dear God”.
I have found those words to be a perfect prayer.
“Dear God” can imply outrage, sadness, bemusement, sarcasm, wonder, disgust, surprise, concern, lack of concern, a groan, turmoil, resignation, irony, good will, horror, and more, all conveyed by subtle nuances in tone.
It could also be, though I never use it like that, a formal greeting: “Dear God; How are You? Wish You were here. Oh, that’s right. Uh, bless You. Much love, Me.”
Also: it is a really good substitute for “WTF?!”
And it is a great alternative to “God damn!”
It is way better than “God damn!” because it is a prayer, not a curse. And one that addresses God as “dear”, as beloved.
But when something is indeed damnable there is no substitute for “God damn!”
As in “God damn capitalism.”
Or “God damn war.”
Or “God damn nationalism.”
The other night, driving home from work, I was listening to talk radio, which I rarely do anymore. William Kristol was on with Hannity, going on about how America should intervene in Iraq, where the Sunni militants are on the march. Mr Kristol, who has been wrong about every single thing his whole career, has the hubris to say such a thing, he who dons his cheerleader uniform and grabs his pom-poms every time a war is brewing, and who led the call for the crusade in Iraq, that killed umpteen innocents, that led directly to the rise of Islamic militancy in the region, the one he now wants to crush, damn the collateral damage. Which creates yet more enemies.
God damn. God damn. God damn.
Know It Alls and the Unknowable
I keep running into arguments about whether Muslims worship ‘the same God’ that Christians do.
Some say that because they do not believe in the Trinity, or the Incarnation, that they do not. But does a flawed understanding of the nature of the holy Being, the incomprehensible Mystery that we call ‘God’, mean that it is not the True God that is worshipped?
Let us hope not.
If Muslims, who claim to worship the One who created all things from nothing, do not in fact worship the One who created all things from nothing because their knowledge falls short of Reality, then what can we say of the Jews, who do not, unlike the Muslims, acknowledge Christ as the Judge of the world, a great prophet, born of an honored Virgin? Or the Calvinists, who believe in a monster god who creates billions of humans to suffer endlessly, a fate that they can neither choose nor reject?
For that matter, Christians, even those who belong to the Apostolic churches, do not ‘know’ God as He Is, despite His revelation of Himself. Indeed, all revelation is also reflected, and if God is revealed to an aggressive asshole, God will be described as an aggressive asshole (see the Book of Joshua).
Every formulation, every structure, every liturgy, every holy book, however lovely, however true, is 99% human. Little gets past the reflective cover on our souls.
Ah, but that 1%, the seed of a new life and a new world and…
But God is unknowable in His essence.
So anyone who acknowledges the One who creates, who shares His Being with contingent beings, worships You Know Who (I almost hate to use the word ‘God’), albeit in darkness. Why are humans so quick to assert their knowledge of the Infinite, by definition beyond us? And so quick to judge the flawed knowledge of others? God deliver us from smug know-it-all Christians, ubiquitous as they are.
And I say this as a former smug know-it-all.
Painting, “Heavy Rain”, by Ohio artist Megan Lightell.
My Calvinist Heritage
… like feeling guilty for breathing deeply, enjoying the beauty of a perfect day, when there are important things I should be worrying about.
My senses present convincing evidence that I am in fact the center of the universe. By communicating with others I know that they too experience this, that they sense that they are the center of all things. What I do with this information reveals a lot about me. If I say ‘well then, my senses deceive me, as their senses deceive them’ and set out to find the true center I am one sort of being. If I say ‘They are all deluded; they imagine that they are me, the center of the universe’ I am a very different sort of being. In that case I have a bright future in commerce, or in politics, or in the Church.
Or in upper postal management, for that matter.
For an apophatic Catholic I spend an inordinate amount of energy trying to figure everything out, to come up with my own personal Unified Theory. And of course there is the further paradox that if the Real, even in its physical essence, is unknowable then even the knowledge of not-knowing is suspect. Zen addressed this, I believe.
In koans, little mysteries.
I said last winter that I was trying to hold my head above water and swim toward the light. These days I breath deep and float in the dark.
An Apophatic Hymn
I know this band ended up making a lot of overproduced dance mixes of their tunes, all electric drum beats and synthesizers, but before they cashed in they made some very fine music. This song is from twenty years ago, and I do not know what they intended by it, but it makes a great hymn from my pew. This album was produced by Joe Boyd, who was Nick Drake’s producer, if this sounds vaguely familiar:
Painting by Georgia O’Keefe
When I was young, in the 70s, I spent a good deal of time on the road, sticking out my thumb, heading for adventure. The summer of 1972 was pivotal for me personally, a reckoning that came when my naive countercultural wave crashed on the rocks of human nature. That is a long story, and I wrote about it a bit a few years ago, of the draft hanging over me that summer (my lottery number was 5), of many adventures and characters encountered, of contracting salmonella at Earth People’s Park in Vermont, of hitching to the first Rainbow Family of Living Light festival in Colorado, where I had a relapse, of my disillusionment with the counterculture of the time.
But I have never written about, and seldom thought about, the STP Family.
The STP Family was a rough tribe of street hippies that seemed to be everywhere the counterculture was collectively burning out in the early 70s. Originating in NYC, they moved en masse to the mountains near Boulder, but traveled widely. They could be found panhandling in Boston and Berkeley, by the side of the road, thumbs out, just about anywhere, in the camps reserved for drinkers at various festivals.
The story I heard was that “STP” stood for “Serenity, Tranquility, Peace”, and that the STP Family was formed by a group of Greenwich Village hippies who vowed to stay high on STP, a psychedelic drug of the era that kept one in a hallucinatory state for 72 hours, as opposed to LSD’s 12.
Why anyone thought that such a regimen would bring serenity or tranquility or peace is beyond me. Though they were very young.
Another version was that it stood for “Sagittarius, Taurus, Pisces”, the astrological signs of the three founders.
And there are other accounts.
Whatever the case, the Family evolved into a very hard living, drug addled subsect of the counterculture. Most people just thought of them as burnouts, and some called them “street monsters”.
They were panhandlers and dealers and thieves, ripoff artists and drunks. They took any drug they could score and were noteworthy for the glazed look in their eyes.
You could spot them by their clothes. Their “habit” consisted of denim patched with leather and scraps of cloth, with an “STP” emblem, the logo of the oil treatment company, somewhere in the mix. Often their clothing was decorated with the skulls of small animals.
They were dirty and smelly and they were violent ( unlike most hippies outside of Detroit, they liked guns). They were violent not least because also unlike most hippies, who limited alcohol use to the occasional bottle of wine, they drank heavily.
Very heavily; mostly rotgut wine, but liquor of any kind they could get their hands on as well. One concoction, of grape Kool Aid and Everclear grain alcohol, was called Purple Jesus.
In Colorado they lived in the mountains in tents, lean-tos and cabins. They claimed to be mountain men, and bragged of killing bears. Probably bullshit, but they did have necklaces of what they said were bear claws, and leather laces from which hung alleged bear teeth.
More bizarrely, there are eyewitnesses that said the Family ate their dead in a spiritual ceremony. Granted, these witnesses had imbibed large doses of hallucinogens and God knows what, but you never know.
They were the original primitives, the Neanderthal tribe of the counterculture.
I never knew anything about their individual backgrounds. The vibe was rough, like the Hell’s Angels without bikes and resources, and one assumed that these were working class folks. Like I said, they brought Detroit to mind. But maybe that was part of the facade; the Village origins, and some rumored history with anarchist offshoots of the Yippies may indicate that these were grad school dropouts, the sons of lawyers.
They had colorful nicknames, like Spooky, Deputy Dawg, Grody, Patty Rotten Crotch, Wabbit, Daisy May, Asshole Dave (of the affiliated Asshole Family).
I knew Spooky a little; I met him in Boston, where I was peddling underground newspapers on Harvard Square to make money for travel. He was stoned out, for sure, but oddly gentle, for an STP guy. He always carried a grey kitten and his eyes looked to some place far away.
If the Family had one virtue it was loyalty to one another. They called themselves a “family” and like a family they stuck up for one another, as many a hapless fool discovered when he insulted one of them.
A lot of them met violent deaths. Deputy Dawg, for example, was murdered by a Colorado cop, who got away with it but made a confession on his deathbed. Dawg was all of 19 when he died.
I recount all of this because the other night, goofing on the internet, I searched for the STP Family.
And found, to my surprise, that not only were they not all dead, but they have an online presence and occasional reunions. There are pages of photos posted by their kids, of when dad and mom were the dregs of the counterculture, like the albums we have of my mom and dad as young spiffily dressed newlyweds, straight off the farm.
It is a testimony to human resilience that not only are a lot of that ragtag band still alive, they have children and grandchildren, some of whom wax nostalgic about their folks, like, well, most people.
That those so far gone did not die but lived to see children and grandchildren, to navigate the earthly sphere with some semblance of normalcy after such a druggy, dazed sojourn, is a testimony to the resilience of the human spirit and of the human body. It is like me, reconnecting with old druggy friends, to find that not only did the ones who did not OD make it through, but many of them appear to have done better than a lot of my religious friends from the era. It is purely anecdotal, but the stoners have a much lower divorce rate, with the girlfriends they married, than my zealous Christian friends had with their spouses.
Life is full of mystery and complexity. Any conclusions are tentative.
I had no love for the STP Family in my traveling days. I was wary of them, as was anyone with any sense. Indeed, they were only the most colorful examples of the sorts of characters I encountered in my travels that summer, who collectively soured me on my counterculture dreams.
But I am unspeakably grateful that so many of them appear to have survived and prospered.
The Iris and the Peony
It is that time again, when the peonies, inebriated by their own beauty, begin to keel over.
But is there anything lovelier than irises and peonies growing beside one another? Like chocolate and almonds, tequila and lime: some things just go together.
I still feel like I am waking up from a very long, very cold, dream.
The Visible Hand
For forty years we have been hearing about the wonders of the magic market. If the incredibly smart capitalists are left to pursue their selfish money making with minimum – some would say no- regulation, the argument goes, wealth will be generated, which by the workings of the Invisible Hand, will reward the creative and punish the indolent and secure prosperity for all.
Except it hasn’t exactly worked out that way, has it? Deregulation and low taxes have resulted, visibly, not invisibly, in unprecedented economic disparity, high unemployment, and a working class reduced to poverty wages.
Yet the free market ideologues yammer on, as if everything had worked according to their model.
Lest there be any doubt, Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maridiaga, the so-called ‘vice pope’ has clarified that libertarianism is incompatible with Catholicism at a conference in DC devoted to a critique of libertarianism in light of Catholic Social Teaching.
In defending Francis against his critics the Cardinal said:
“No to an economy of exclusion” (53). With this title Pope Francis already denotes the essential characteristic of today’s economy, which he rejects. He ties in with the Ten Commandments. The commandment “You shall not kill” (Ex 20,13) defines a limit aimed at securing the value of human life. From this biblical view he says “no to an economy of exclusion and to inequality in income” (53). And Francis describes this in concrete terms very clearly: “How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion.” And I think each and any of you may know of similar fates from people in your country.
As a pastor in a very poor country I know how much of daily insecurity is connected with this situation of poverty- insecurity for the children in particular, but also big worries for mothers and fathers that do not know how to get drinking water, food, medical care or school education for their children. Global economy under the conditions of libertarianism excludes such people. Since their point of view a human being is a consumer. If she or he is incapable of consuming this type of economy does not need her of him, can do away with her or him. From this, Francis concludes: “It is no longer simply about exploitation and oppression, but something new. Exclusion ultimately has to do with what it means to be a part of the society in which we live; those excluded are no longer society’s underclass or its fringes or its disenfranchised- they are no longer even a part of it. The excluded are not the “exploited” but waste, “rubbish” (53).
The full text of his remarks can be found at the end of this blog post:
Condescension, Thy Name is Novak
“Scholar Who Taught John Paul II To Appreciate Capitalism Worries About Pope Francis”. That is the title of an article from Forbes and if you guessed it is about millionaire theologian and armchair economist Michael Novak, you would be right. If, after you have thrown up a little, you can stomach more, you may read an interview with Mr Novak, rich in hubris and dogged ideological posturing, here:
Yes, I know, Mr Novak would not describe himself as a libertarian. Neither would Fr Sirico. But as far as I can see the only difference is that the neoconservatives and Actonites also are neocolonialists, while libertarians generally oppose political empire…
Francis’ Greatest Gift
As welcome as Francis’ direct criticism of economic liberalism has been -and there was a time, not so long ago, when it appeared triumphant, even in the Vatican- the pope’s greatest gift has been in his calling every one of us to a direct encounter, not with doctrine or moralism or human concepts of Christ, but with Christ Himself.
I need this, you need this, our friends need this, our enemies need this. How easy, amid all the distractions, temptations, controversies, and worries, to forget the One Thing necessary: the Joy of the Gospel, the Person of Jesus.
Icon by Sean Flaherty