Sunday, April 30, 2017

Of ‘Zen,’ Gumption, and Conversion

 
"His name was Mu-nan, the man who never turned back."

Somewhere in the diffuse literary swamp that is our home library there’s my beat-up purple paperback of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance – or not. Who knows? The chances are pretty good that I passed it on to somebody long ago, but I went searching for it in the stacks anyway.

I was hoping to track it down because I’d heard on NPR that the author, Robert Pirsig, was dead, and I had had a vivid flashback: There I was, in the student union at Seattle Pacific, sitting in a booth by myself, captivated by this exotic, exhilarating novel/travelogue/testament. Consequently, I wanted to find my copy of Zen to maybe conjure up a bit more of what’d been on my mind back there in Seattle. Not to re-read it, mind you, but just to hold it in my hands again. To see if I’d scrawled anything in the margins, perhaps, or underlined anything.

No such luck – oh, well. 

When I read Zen in Seattle, I was an unsettled student of theology wrestling with doubt and anxiety – about my faith, about my direction in life, about my transition to adulthood, oh, and lots of things. I was searching for something – something…different, I suppose, different than what I was accustomed to. I’m not sure how I came upon Pirsig’s book, but I latched onto it because it was plenty different – bizarre even, a “metaphysical meditation on everything from East Asian philosophy to the author's own struggles with mental illness,” as NPR’s David Greene put it. I couldn’t make heads or tails of it, but there’s no question that it shook me up but good.

For one thing, there was the Zen stuff – which was in itself a huge departure for me, and even a bit risqué for an evangelical. Was it OK to be delving into Pirsig’s Buddhist-inspired constructs, despite my ability to comprehend it all? Was it dangerous? Allowed?

Like I said, I didn’t understand it much, but at some level I could grasp the book’s fundamental juxtaposition of the Western, classic approach to life (objectivity and rationality, mechanics) and the Eastern, more experiential approach (romantic orientation, subjectivity, Zen). Pirsig drew on something he called the Metaphysics of Quality to reconcile the two, but that was way beyond me. Instead, what I remember appreciating was simply the opportunity to consider reality and the human condition from an entirely foreign vantage point. That was pretty new to me, and I found it provocative and totally rejuvenating.

Another dimension of Pirsig’s book that I relished was its implicit rejection of navel-gazing. I wasn’t very good at philosophizing anyway, and Pirsig in a sense gave me permission to let it go. Instead, as James Hagerty pointed out in his WSJ obituary, Pirsig “proposed a revival of ‘gumption,’” which, in the book, is represented by he and his son taking to the road. Here’s how Pirsig himself summed up the word in Zen:

A person filled with gumption doesn't sit around dissipating and stewing about things. He's at the front of the train of his own awareness, watching to see what's up the track and meeting it when it comes. That's gumption.

Two things can derail us from a gumptious trajectory according to Pirsig. Either exogenous, outside set-backs, or endogenous, interior hang-ups. Both are essentially obstacles that get in the way of momentum, and it’s momentum that keeps us on fire for what matters.

And what matters? Here again, I’d have to say that Pirsig lost me. I was ill equipped as an undergraduate religion major to comprehend the author’s philosophical abstractions. What I was able to glean from Pirsig was a passion for searching, along with a determination to push aside obstacles that might dissuade or discourage.

It wasn’t long after I read Pirsig’s Zen that I began toying with the idea of becoming a Catholic. That took a willingness to consider a radically different worldview on its own terms, and the gumption to stick with it even when external and internal voices were advising otherwise. Although I read Pirsig’s masterpiece with an eye toward flirtation with Eastern religion, it ended up being a subtle preparation for my subsequent Catholic conversion. Zen wasn't a major influence, but it surely played a role. That might sound strange, especially given Pirsig's rejection of organized religion as "delusion." Even so, we know from Scripture that God is the master jury-rigger, and there are virtually no limits to what (or whom) he will draw on in the order of grace. Whatever it takes.

Thanks for the eye-opener, Mr. Pirsig. Rest in peace.
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Friday, March 31, 2017

The Night I Read ‘Catcher in the Rye’


Not teens, but twenties, well out of high school,
Well out of college, on my own, more or less,
Alone and restive, I picked it up –
What’s the big deal?

Sleepless, I sought distraction. Anything
Would do: Words on page, descriptions and
Dialogue, characters and action, the
Weariness would win and I'd
Succumb to slumber.

Leaning, tilting, the
Momentum pulled me on – no
Sleep that night, no rest. Like a
Rock in my shoe, each page was a step that
Stirred my attention, jolting and jostling me
Awake! To arms! To arms! The fight
Must be joined – awake!

A scramble for jeans and jacket, and
Out to the street in the cool early morning.
Dark, desolate – didn’t matter. Nothing
Open, nowhere to go – didn’t matter. Just get
Outside, move, walk The Hill for hours,
Watch the dawn, sniff the pine in the
Thin air, hope for release.

Glinting, the Flatirons caught the sunrise as I
Headed home to recline and recover, to
Await the ride.
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Friday, February 24, 2017

The Martyrs of Damascus (1860)

“The days in which we live now require heroic Catholicism, not casual Catholicism,” declared Peoria Bishop Daniel Jenky in 2012. “We can no longer be Catholics by accident, but instead be Catholics by conviction.” This is especially the case when religious tolerance is lacking and when faithfulness to Christ can – and often does – lead to death, a situation not restricted to our current age.

Consider, for example, the persecuted Christians of the Islamic Ottoman Empire. In 1856, following the Crimean War, the Ottoman Sultan granted full and universal religious freedom to his subjects. It was an unacceptable concession for the majority Muslim population, and it was particularly noxious in the view of the minority Druze sect, a gnostic offshoot of Shiite Islam.

In the spring of 1860, the Druze, egged on by recalcitrant Ottoman authorities, began methodically slaughtering Lebanon’s Maronite Christians. By early July, the violence had spilled over into Muslim-controlled Damascus, leading to thousands more Maronite deaths.

At the time, a small cadre of European Franciscans – six priests, two lay brothers, hailing from Spain and Austria – were ministering to the resident Christian population in Damascus. Led by the Fr. Emmanuel Ruiz, the missionary friars administered the sacraments, operated a small school, and did their best to tend their small flock.

When news of the Islamist uprising reached their convent, the Franciscans gave shelter to the Maronite locals, and Ruiz himself sought to consume the reserved Blessed Sacrament before it could be profaned. When the assailants arrived and confronted Ruiz in the chapel, they offered to spare his life if he converted to Islam. “I am a Christian,” came the guardian’s reply, “and I will die a Christian.” The attackers immediately cut down Ruiz and then butchered his body.

A similar fate awaited the rest of the Franciscan contingent, who all steadfastly refused to renounce the faith and accepted martyrdom readily. This heroic resolve even extended to members of their flock – specifically, three Maronite laymen, all blood brothers, who, like their Franciscan shepherds, preferred death to disloyalty to Christ.

In 1926, Pope Pius XI beatified Ruiz, his seven confreres, and the three martyred Maronite laymen. May their intercession lead to greater interfaith peace and tolerance, for, in the words of Pope St. John Paul II, “the church remains always open to dialogue and cooperation.”
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A version of this essay originally appeared in Franciscan Way, Franciscan University of Steubenville.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Venerable Matthew Talbot (1856-1925)

Matt Talbot near the end of his life
True lovers love extravagantly, and Matthew Talbot was an extravagant lover of God. This Franciscan tertiary's penitential practices might come across as excessively severe today, but they were in fact unabashed outpourings of a soul totally abandoned to the Lord.

Talbot was born in Dublin, Ireland, the second of 12 children in a poor working-class family. With only a single year of formal schooling from the Christian Brothers, the 12-year-old Matthew started working to augment his father's meager wages and help support the family. His first job was running messages for a wine merchant, and Matt Proved himself to be a hardy and dependable employee.

Through the influence of his mother, Talbot was initially inclined to moral living, but the bad example of his fellow workers took its toll on the impressionable youth. Talbot's work afforded him easy access to alcohol, and his introduction to strong drink quickly developed into a full-blown addiction. He always managed to keep down a laboring job of one kind or another, but Matt's drinking inevitably disrupted his personal affairs. His wages were increasingly devoted to purchasing liquor instead of helping his family; he once sold his own shoes for another drink.

By the time Matt was 28, his derelict condition had progressed to the point that even his drinking buddies avoided him. Desperate, ashamed, and abandoned, he approached a priest one night for confession and followed it up by taking a three-month pledge of abstinence. Talbot doubted his ability to stay sober for any length of time, but he prayed hard, took one day at a time, and did indeed stay dry. He subsequently pledged to forego alcohol permanently, redirecting his focus toward personal mortification and the interior life.

Talbot took to sleeping no more than four hours a night, and that on a bed of planks with a pine wood block for a pillow. He arose every morning for several hours of prayer on his knees before attending Mass at 6:00 a.m. Then he was off to the lumberyard, where he worked a 10-hour day as he had before his conversion, but now silently communing with his Savior as he labored, and taking every opportunity to exhort his co-workers to sanctity.

Matt fasted often, but even when he didn't, he routinely skipped lunch, spending that time on his knees, and eating only a very light supper after work. He spent his evenings in prayer, or attending a variety of pious gathering, before retiring to bed by 11:00 p.m.

The list of his regular devotional practices is extensive, including 15 decades of the Rosary and the Way of the Cross daily, novenas prior to every feast, substantial spiritual reading, and a variety of popular devotions. On Sundays he would remain in his parish church most of the day to attend every mass. Talbot's was a life wholly given over to the things of God, and he took the greatest joy in lavishing himself on his Creator.

Upon the recommendation of his confessor, Talbot joined the Third Order of St. Francis to add structure to his devotional life and further reinforce his sobriety. It was an ideal match, for Matt had already adopted a Franciscan way of life as if by intuition. Like the Poor Man of Assisi, Talbot embraced poverty and got by on only a fraction of his already meager income. He donated the rest to charity and the missions, and often supplemented the take-home pay of fellow workers who headed large families.

Statute of Matt Talbot, Dublin
Matt also mirrored St. Francis in sharing Christ's physical agonies. But whereas Francis bore that suffering literally in the stigmata, Talbot took it on by means of heavy chains wound around his body – a mortification that was hidden his whole life and only revealed as nurses prepared his body for burial.

The glow of sanctity attracted many to the simple Talbot, and he gained a reputation as a powerful intercessor, despite his efforts to remain hidden in his life of devotion. So it was that he was sorely missed by many when his penitential lifestyle so strained his health that he had to be hospitalized for lengthy stays on two different occasions. In the end his ill health caught up with him, and he died outside his parish church on the way to a second Mass on Trinity Sunday, 1925. Pope Pius XII introduced Talbot's cause in 1947, and a decree on his virtues was issued in 1975.
_________________________________

A version of this story originally appeared in
Franciscan Way, Franciscan University of Steubenville.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Green Ink


On my birthday last year, you gave me poetry –
Poetry! To one so prosaic as a dad
Who naps in Shakespeare and
Truncates your self-portraits.

And there it languished at the ready, along with
Kierkegaard and Flannery
And everything else I intended to
Read or re-read,

Perched by my pillow,
Within eyeshot, your gift – concealing
As it did a message, a clue, a line of epiphany,

Which I overlooked the times I
Blew off the dust and
Flipped through the pages, your
Literary largesse.

Now, a full calendar gone by,
I’m desperate for distraction – sleep
Bats me down, repose denied – and
The stack beckons, poetry on top.

Coaxed by your green-inked inscription, I
Enter and behold a green-inked
Line beneath title. So subtle, so
Like me to miss it before: The

Ink was the gift! Hence,
Before I drift off, here
I thank you.
______________________________________

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Required for Survival: Food & Water as Moral Default


The May-June 2005 issue of Liguorian Magazine featured an article by Mark Miller, CSsR, entitled “The Controversy Surrounding Feeding Tubes.” I sent the following letter in response. It was not printed, and I never received a reply.
__________________________________


Editor:

The May 2005 issue of Liguorian includes several beautiful tributes to Pope John Paul II, for which I commend you. His life of love and service, particularly in his role as Pope, was marked by holiness, fidelity to Truth, and tireless efforts on behalf of the world's most vulnerable.

The quality of your memorial section devoted to our beloved John Paul II makes the brief article by Fr. Mark Miller, CSsR, on feeding tubes all the more jarring. Fr. Miller rightly refers to the Pope's March 2004 allocution making it clear that the provision of food and water – even through a tube – must always be considered a part of ordinary care. But then Miller completely undermines the weight of the Holy Father's teaching by contrasting it with the work of “other moral theologians” who see food and water as optional – depending on “context and circumstances.”

This is pure relativism and is exactly the kind of muddled moralizing that John Paul was addressing. The last paragraph of Fr. Miller’s essay refers to “no swallowing ability, no awareness, and no sensation” – an apt description of a person in a persistent vegetative state, or any unconscious state for that matter. Where Fr. Miller makes a serious error is in following that description with the phrase, “the body slowly shuts itself down in a painless process.” This would occur only if there were an underlying and untreatable pathology that would inexorably lead to death, or if the individual were denied the ordinary elements required for survival – including, namely, food and water.

That is the crucial point: When food and water are withheld such that a person dies as a direct result, the only conclusion possible is that a willful homicide has occurred. How can it be otherwise? Obviously, when the provision of nutrition and hydration are no longer serving any purpose at all, and in fact become burdensome – even to the recipient – then it may be discontinued. But such a situation was not being addressed by the Pope’s allocution in the spring of 2004; he was addressing a narrowly prescribed set of circumstances, and it seems providential that, almost exactly a year later, the exact circumstance he had referred to burst into the public eye with the battle over Terri Schiavo.

Of course consideration must be made for the particular circumstances of individual cases, but what the Holy Father did (and admirably well, in my own opinion) is to help us know the limits of what can be debated, even in the hard cases. No one is claiming that food and water must be provided at all costs until the very last breath has passed one's lips; what the Pope declared is that no one should ever die from starvation and dehydration – and that is precisely what happens when feeding tubes are discontinued in the absence of underlying pathologies that naturally lead to death.
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Monday, October 31, 2016

Daily Mass


Not so much reserved,
but gravitational –
this couple near the third fall,
that one near Pilate’s bolt.

On Mary’s side,
I nestle between pivots:
the Cyrene crucifer and
Veronica’s boon.

My pivot is presence – I’m there.
Nodding, nodding, I
never assist, only
posture and perceive.

At Communion, I approach
and return – back to my place.

Attendance is sparse again today.
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