The Gift of Age

This is the third sermon/talk I’ve given for a local Portland congregation. It’s an attempt to keep my thought close to the hearts and minds of my listeners.

Luke: 32 “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.”

Our little flock will fear not, for the kingdom is here; good news; but where is it amidst the trouble and darkness all about?

We know it’s not in our material wealth, nor in our possessions.

33 Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.

The kingdom will be a place of spirit, a place of the heart. What do we gather as treasure in our hearts?  We gather memories, feelings, stories. These are a heavenly treasure. They give us our spirit or soul, and our worlds. In rich and varied memories the kingdom is nigh. In memories I am spiritually present to myself, and to my friends and neighbors, family and fellows, present to gardens and family cats. We co-mingle in that special memorial place.

We listen for places and people we treasure. This is a place thieves can’t enter, where no moths corrupt. It’s a kingdom of ample sustenance. We fear loss of memory because we fear loss of our souls and of the soul’s rich co-mingling with others and place.

I’m slow to give up my material possessions. I have no choice but to give up parts of my physical prowess. But I have treasure to husband close to the heart.

With age, I become more aware of needs and infirmities. Though age debilitates it also illuminates. As age increases, the body darkens — yet the heart can glow brighter. Age is only sometimes a curse. We remember trouble and also joys, loves and delights. These we take to heart, where no thief can steal nor moth decay. Culled and cultivated, they become seasoned wisdom to treasure and share.

Tharcisse died a few weeks ago.  I hardly knew him. I wish I had done more to hear his story. I thought of him as an elder. Young in calendar years, he carried himself with the dignity of age and experience. Modesty and deference often cloak a wisdom harbored by those of a certain age. Tharcisse died before I could hear his story; no doubt I’d stumble trying to give him a glimpse of mine.

Of course, we come to know each other by sharing activities, but today I’d add that we know each other by listening – sharing memories, getting the gist or glitter of anothers treasure or trauma.  Pat Taub maintains her blog Women’s Older Wisdom for sharing memories. Peg Cushman and Eunice Bentley collect data behind our stories — birthplace, children, work, favorite activities.

Moving from essential facts to the art of sharing memories is not always easy.  We stumble. Some don’t know how to start.  Others tell bits and pieces, but tell it out of tune – say as a boast or a put down of others. Some don’t know how to stop telling. We like to listen but don’t like to be drowned out. It’s an art to speak from memory and an art to listen.

We’re cognitive, social, religious and Darwinian animals, and through it all we’re singers of tales, story-tellers, hearers of stories.  This is the place of heavenly timeless treasure.

Memories and story-telling persist even as we lower our shoulders to get things done.  Action flows into tomorrow’s memories of what we’ve accomplished or heard today. Memories flow forward to fund more doing. Singing, hammering, knitting; birthdays, weddings and funerals, generate stories we tell ourselves the next day and often for years to come. Openness to memories is an art that yields harvests of happiness, satisfaction, joy.

The older we become, the more we replicate remembered activities. This Sunday replicates last Sunday, back to the beginning of time. Often the present is reinvention, reenactment. Today’s singing, hammering, knitting, and feasting consolidate experience and spiritual life as it invokes past singing, hammering, knitting, and feasting; and it consolidates wisdom by foretelling future feasting and knitting.

A recent New Yorker profile sketched a wise, many-sided woman I’ve known slightly for nearly 50 years. In Martha Nussbaum’s story we get a glimmer of her heart. The profile’s headline is “The Philosopher of Feelings.” It tells us that her “far-reaching ideas illuminate often ignored elements of life—aging, inequality, and emotion.”

I get a glimmer of what she feels about becoming Jewish while raised Episcopalian, about being a world-citizen while being a local university professor, about being a daughter, mother, and athlete who at 70 still runs four miles a day. I get a glimpse of her taking voice lessons to get a more intimate feel of Mozart’s arias; I cringe at what she must feel about her father boycotting her wedding.

Her star-quality accomplishments make headlines, but they distract from the gift of her wisdom. In her books she tells stories of love, detachment, tragedy, and community. Her years are a gift of age, of a wisdom gathered from wide experience held in the heart, richly orchestrated in telling – a heavenly treasure.

Seventy isn’t inevitably old with wisdom; some give up on the heart long before that. And 70 might be young. My friend reminds me that in Genesis you become wise well past 70.  “This is the length of Abraham’s life: 175 years. He took his last breath and died at a ripe old age, old and contented.”

Mid-life 30-60 is typically a time to build social identities – we become uncles, church-members, lawyers, rock stars, librarians, doting aunts. This life-phase is full of work to get somewhere, to arrive, to get ahead: to further a career or start a new one, to be a better parent, sibling, daughter, or neighbor, to manage failure and success, to stay in shape and in good faith.

As we approach 100 or 150, getting ahead drops out. We’re free to cull and cultivate memories as we co-mingle with others. We take memories to heart and share things a mere 50 yr. old has no clue about.  We tear up blueprints for building up a self in its many sites.  We turn over the past for footprints, memories: where do I come from (spiritually)? Where have I been? What have I done — and not done? What have I felt — and not felt?

With the gift of age we speak (or stay silent) with authority — the authority of many winters, many weddings, many graduations, many burials, many hospital visits – memories of many falls and many recoveries, many climbs to the mountain top and many descents to the valleys; we become familiar with the shadows of death and the bright dawns of birth.

Happily, with age, there are fewer with authority lying in wait to contradict me. And with patience, I hope to edit out false self-inflation or false self-deflation.

Grandchildren will listen, as will friends of recent acquaintance – those whose memories only partially intersect my own. Bits and pieces are the name of the game — no long narrations, no monologues, no tedious holding forth, no drowning out others. It’s an art to fit story to setting and listeners.

For my grandkids, I’ll pick and choose episodes from my infinitely long life that might carry a smidgeon of wisdom. They’re 7 and 13 and healthily impatient to have their own way. I’ll tell them an apt story of my own rebellions youth, and how I managed to get free – or didn’t.

As I think of telling my story (or hearing yours) I ask “Who am I?”  — “Who have I been?” — Just as important, I ask “Who will I be?”  The future needn’t slam shut quite yet.

Who will I be? Reading literature and watching films help. I get immersed in the felt-realities of persons I’d otherwise never know firsthand – a smart detective named Morse, Downton’s Dowager Countess. These help me imagine who I might veer toward tomorrow and after.

Will I be a bit more like the musical Inspector Morse, or link arms with David Copperfield’s upbeat innocence, or veer toward the acid wit of the Couness, Maggie Smith?  And I listen for the “lilt” and “sheen” of things that surround Morse or Copperfield or the Countess. Oxford, London, and Downton are part of the song of the world, the song that wisdom remembers – it’s the place we move and have our being.

These sheens, lilts and rhythms seem to arrive more vividly, subtly, and frequently with the quiet coming of Age. Not that life becomes quiet, but that the soul takes on a stillness that allows more space for resonance.

It’s never too late to become definitively who one is. By 1940, when Paris fell, you might have thought that Henri Bergson’s identity was complete, finished. He was 81, winner of the Nobel prize in literature, a friend of William James and Einstein. But it ain’t over ’til it’s over.

At the start of the occupation, Jews in Paris were ordered to line up on the street to get yellow armbands. Bergson, a Jew, might have dodged this order. For years he had been close to converting to Catholicism. A quick conversion would have saved him from the arm band.

As a world renowned thinker he could have wrangled an exemption. Freud, Wittgenstein, and other notables bargained for favors. A frail old man, he might have stayed in bed rather than descend the stairs for a miserable yellow band. On a cold day in June, 1940, at this defining moment, the question was open: What would he become?  Bergson went out and lined up in a cold drizzle, catching the pneumonia that would kill him.

His then-accomplished, solid identities did not dictate who he would become. In a crucial moment he became a soldierly 81 yr. old — a man of action, courage, resistance, and solidarity.

His gift of action was also a gift of memory and wisdom.  He bequeathed a story to be retold and re-enacted, in small or larger ways, generation to generation. We need stories more or less anonymous wisdom, and also need memorial big screen stories of heroism and wisdom. Bergson was never too old to give us his gift of age.

The gift lodges in memory, in feeling, in the heart.

This is the kingdom bequeathed.

Report from the Field

My friend David O’Hara posted this on his blog, “Slowly Percolating Forms,” this morning.

As a friend of Thoreau, I think you’ll be struck by its simple beauty and depth, reflecting the Thoreauvian depth, sensitivity, and honesty of the writer.

**

A Pretty Good Year

Posted: 06 Aug 2016 02:06 PM PDT

Last year was a pretty good year.  Or at least, what I remember of it was pretty good.

As my regular readers know, I’m a professor of philosophy and classics, and I teach a wide range of classes. (You can click on the “Teaching” link above to see a sampling of the courses I teach.)

Often people assume that means I wear tweed and a bowtie and that I spend my time in classrooms talking about old books.  All that is true, but it’s only a part of what I do.

In fact, most of my favorite classrooms are outdoors, where I’m likely to be found wearing jeans and hiking boots, a parka, or a wetsuit and snorkel.

Over the last dozen years or so my teaching and research have tended towards the environmental humanities.  Think of this as the merging of the humanities side of the liberal arts with a close observation of the natural world. I consider my work to be a continuation of the work that Thales and Aristotle did when they paid close attention to animals on the ground and to the skies above, and of the work of Peirce, Thoreau, and Bugbee, all of whom let a rising trout or a solar eclipse provoke philosophical reflection.

While I don’t work in an indoor laboratory, I think that education is not about the imparting of information or the filling of an empty vessel with ideas.  Education is the kindling of a fire, as Plutarch wrote.  And that fire is kindled by the kinds of experiences that we get in labs, art studios, shared meals, liturgies, study travel, and seminars.  Lecture halls are a fine place to discuss environmental policy, to be sure.  But so is a prairie, especially when you’re waiting for water to boil on your camp stove, and watching the sun’s beams break over the horizon and melt a light frost on your tent.

When I’m at home, I like to take my classes outside to sit under trees on campus. In the fall, I try to bring my Ancient Philosophy students camping in the Badlands of South Dakota where we can view the stars far from urban glow.  Most Januaries, my students and I are in the subtropical forests of Guatemala and on a barrier island in Belize, studying ecology and culture.  I rarely take a spring break, since I usually take that week to teach a course in Greece.  Last summer I started teaching a class on trout and salmon in Alaska.

Those are all beautiful, memorable places, but I don’t visit them as a tourist.  I go to these places because I want my students to understand what is at stake when we talk about environmental regulations and practices.  I want them to meet displaced people whose permafrost islands are melting or whose forests are being burned down for meager cropland.  I want them to see the disappearing mangroves so that they can consider the full cost of seafood.  When they stay in homes in Guatemala, my students will meet people who can never again be a mere abstraction; after we return, my students will know that the people struggling to cross borders are not nameless, faceless strangers, but people who are looking for ways to feed those they love.

A little less than a year ago I was finishing up a year that had brought me to all these places.  I taught in the South Dakota Badlands, in Central America, in Greece, and in Alaska. Along the way, I had begun studying environmental law at Vermont Law School as a way of enhancing my teaching and my research.  It was a good year, and as August was winding down, my desk was covered with field notebooks full of observations from Alaska and Guatemala, ready to be written up.  My field notes are usually accompanied by thousands of photographs, and hundreds of sketches.  I began the fall semester last year ready to teach, and ready to write.

And then I wound up in the hospital with some serious injuries.  Those injuries put a sudden stop to all my teaching last fall, and for a long time I lost most of my ability to write.  (I’ll try to write more about the injuries and my subsequent disabilities later; it’s not an easy thing to write about yet.)

Now, as this summer hastens towards the beginning of another school year, I am able to look back on last year with a sense of good fortune – albeit mixed with one very bad day and its long-term consequences.  Physically, I’m regaining my flexibility and strength, a little at a time. I’m not where I was a year ago, and I may never be there again, but I’m alive and able to walk, so I’ll count that in the “win” column of my life’s scorecard.  Intellectually, most people seem to think I’m doing fine, so I’ll also count that as a win.  Although it left me exhausted each day, I was able to teach again this spring, and I plan to be back in my classrooms (Deo volente!) this fall.

But here are these field notebooks, and hundreds of unedited pages on my hard drive.  It was my habit to write daily.  Over the last year, recovering from a brain injury has made it hard to write more than a few sentences at a time.

This morning I was looking at some of my pictures from my research in the Arctic last summer, and I was hit with a feeling of loss. Those photos and those notes should be a book by now, and perhaps several articles and book chapters, too.  Instead, over the last year, as I have waited for my body and brain to heal, and as I struggled to do my teaching, I had no strength to write.

It feels funny to say that, but perhaps I am not alone in finding that a brain injury can be slow to heal and extremely tiring. I don’t say that to get your sympathy.  I am blessed with a very supportive community and an amazing wife who somehow has kept our life together and nursed me through my healing process.  I’m fortunate.  But if you’ve read this far, you might consider whether there are others around you who look like they’re doing well physically but who might be nursing invisible wounds or who might be struggling to cope with invisible disabilities.  This past year has given me a new perspective on that by making me aware of my own disabilities, most of which you won’t notice if you see me at the gym or in one of my classrooms.

I might not be able to write another book yet, so for now, here’s my plan: I’ll write a little at a time.  Thankfully, I’ve got my notes, sketches, and photos.  I’ll start with them.

If you’re curious about how a professor of philosophy and classics does research and writing about nature – and how he works to recover from a serious brain injury – you might check out some of my recent publications.  My book Downstream is the result of eight years of field research on the ecology of the Appalachians, with a focus on brook trout.  On this blog you’ll also find my recently published poem, “Sage Creek,” which might give you a glimpse of my ancient philosophy class camping and stargazing in the Badlands. Or feel free to look at my photos on Instagram. Even when I can’t teach in the field, I can still wander my garden with a hand lens and camera.

Hope Springs Eternal

 

A Talk

We remember things in threes. Faith hope and love; Hope trust and affection; philosophy poetry and religion. Youth Maturity Age.

But we’d rather remember just one, or have one of the three be greatest: Faith hope and love, and the greatest of these is love; love, justice, and gratitude, and the greatest of these is gratitude (or love or justice).

Sunday mornings in Portland remind us of blessings: of faith, hope and love; of affection and gratitude; and we sing of those blessings.

We find blessings best amidst peace, joy, and communion. And we find those best here in a noise-free, no-insult zone; a no-competition, hate-free zone; a shared comfort-for-all zone.

It’s a place for acceptance and trusts, smiles, blessings, and hope.

**  **  **

Here’s the Angel of Amherst, on hope:  Emily Dickinson:

Hope is the thing with feathers — That perches in the soul

And sings the tune without the words — And never stops at all

I think of hope as poised on the cusp of unfolding melody.

Hope, trust, and affection lift us from the start of a melodic phrase and carry us to its end – and from the end to a new beginning.

We have to love our melodies – even our lamentations – to stay with them and share them and caress and tender their phrases.

We have to trust that our notes will be well-placed and our tone steady in its unfolding. Hope lifts us through, from silence to song. It carries us over the fears and the gaps.

**  **  **

A melody, at its best, is love and goodbye.

Our lives, at their best, are melody, love and goodbye.

Hope is the thing with feathers  —  That perches in the soul

And sings the tune without the words —  And never stops at all

And sore must be the storm — That could abash the little bird

That kept so many warm.

Love is help in a storm, but so often it has strings attached.

Hope has no strings attached.

Charity is help in a storm, but so often it too has strings attached – now you owe.

But hope has no strings. Hope is a gift, a blessing, without fine print at the bottom.

The Amherst singer ends her poem with the thought that hope, unlike love or charity, asks nothing of us in return:

And sore must be the storm — That could abash the little bird

That kept so many warm.

I’ve heard it in the chillest land  — And on the strangest sea

Yet never in extremity it asked a crumb of me.

** ** **

We can’t make hope happen; nor can we make love happen. Yet we can make things easier for both love and hope to sing through our lives.

We do this by cultivating a spirit of openness, friendliness, and communion, and by diminishing noise — the noise of TV news that upsets and agitates; the noise of too many Text messages and emails that threaten to block out openness and communion.

Yet we have to reflect on the bad news even as it threatens hope. The news of Orlando or Syria or The West Bank or Rwanda or Venezuela can darken hope but can’t be shut down.

Sometimes it’s more local news that sullies lives: that imperious boss or inconsiderate coach, or drunken bum next door. Losing patience with the world or our neighbor, hopelessness or hatred intrude.

**  **  **

Just a week ago reading about Sherlock Holmes – or Conan Doyle – I caught him thinking hopefully about big things – not local crime, but war, peace and justice.  It’s from the film Sherlock Holmes Faces Death.

There’s a new spirit abroad in the land. The old days of grab and greed are on their way out. We’re beginning to think of what we owe the other fellow, not just what we’re compelled to give him. The time’s coming when we shan’t be able to fill our bellies in comfort while other folk go hungry — or sleep in warm beds while others shiver in the cold; when we shan’t be able to kneel and thank God for blessings before our shining altars while men anywhere are kneeling in either physical or spiritual subjection. And God willing, we’ll live to see that day.

Holmes was good at solving crimes but bad at predicting the next decades. The new age of sustained peace, generosity, and justice just never arrived.

Yet perhaps something like that utopian illusion helped Holmes get through the London blitz, and prepare for the day that bombers would quit the skies of London and Dresden.

He didn’t live to see that day of sustained peace and justice, nor will we — though we work for it nonetheless. And to keep the dream alive we strain to

 hear the thing with feathers — That perches in the soul.

 

**  **  **

 

thHere is perhaps the greatest conductor of the last century talking about singing and not being abashed by the scary unknown. It’s Wilhelm Furtwangler, a German conductor who was famous for surprising everyone – even himself – with his spur of the moment, surprising phrasing in concert.

To be alive is to face and deliver surprise and the unexpected. No two Furtwangler performances were identical. He knew we all live in a world of the unforeseen. The unforeseen gives hope a grip. Hope might guard us against terror, or open us to wonder.

And the unforeseen is ubiquitous, not just in the uncertainty of post-war Europe, but in the uncertainty of the near future of a conversation – which way will it turn? – or the unforeseen is in the uncertainty of the near future of a musical phrase.

We are both conversation and phrase,

always edging into the new and uncertain.

**  **  **

220px-DBPB_1955_128_Wilhelm_FurtwänglerFurtwangler is in charge of 100 instrumentalists, yet he doesn’t try for iron fist control of his players. Nor does he want too much control over his intuitions, his impulses. They are feathered things that must sing, full of hope.

We often try to reduce the unforeseen to a controllable level, to prevent a sudden impulse that escapes our ability to control, yet also responds to an obscure desire. Let’s allow improvisation to have its place and play its role. I think that the true interpreter is the one who improvises.

Those sudden impulses – grasping for more light  (often – not always) — get us through to new and better places, new and better phrases. Our lives, after all, aren’t a dull drum beat or a repetitive formula, but a melody or conversation that can change — and get stuck — and begin to soar again.

**  **  **

Dante warns, “Abandon all hope ye who enter here.”

If you’re in hell, you don’t have a hope.

If you’re hopeless, you’re in hell.

So listen for the promise, the hope, the beckoning affection in that emerging, opening phrase. With any luck, it will be there. You’ll find it in Devin’s “Summertime”  -– or in Dame Judith Baker’s “An de musik” — or in Iddo Bar Shai’s Haydn.

When the worthy dream, or beautiful song, of peace and justice withers, breaks, or gets trashed — shouted down, by real-time events — then anchored in hope, we get up from the dust, and dust off. We let hope – hope, trust, and affection, these three — have another shot.

We let them pierce the darkness once again and show the way back to the tune.

We let an Amherst “tune without words” carry us on. A tune without words, because the feathered thing uplifts without telling us moralistically what the lesson is — or that we were so stupid for losing our way, or for losing hope.

**  **  **

Wilhelm Furtwangler dives intuitively into the unknown of his music. You can hear him conduct Beethoven on You Tube. He dives into the unknown each time, no matter how many times he’s played or rehearsed it.

A good musician knows that like life, unless one gets mechanical, there’s no certainty about what comes next. It’s not just that mistakes or disasters intrude. It’s uncertainty about whether you can pull off the wonderful, the better than best, the sweeter than sweet.

And before the phrase finishes, you still remain feeling your way ahead. You really don’t know what the finish will be. If you can’t be mechanical, you improvise.

** ** **

Back from soaring music, back to the simple tunes of life:

Improvise !

You try a new trick on the unhappy kid.

Nothing but wails, and both of you need a better path.

Maybe sing to her

(without words of blame or impatience).

 

Hope is the thing with feathers –

 That perches in the soul

And sings the tune without the words –

And never stops at all

 

And sore must be the storm –

That could abash the little bird

That kept so many warm.

 

I’ve heard it in the chillest Maine –

And on the strangest Bay

Yet never in extremity it asked a crumb of me.


 

 

 

 

The film Sherlock Holmes Faces Death is the sixth in the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce series. The writers loosely adapted Conan Doyle’s story “The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual”, setting it during 1943. (You can watch the film on Youtube).

Doubting Thomas and The Merit of Touch

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A Sunday Talk from Portland

I always wondered about Doubting Thomas. What did this biblical figure doubt? In the course of reading I became fascinated with his obsession with touch, with touching as an access to truth. And I soon discovered that my thoughts on the matter led to The Whirlwind (from The Book of Job) and to a theme from Thoreau.

I assumed Thomas was a real skeptic, a real doubter. But as Bogart says in Casablanca, I’d “been misinformed.” Lingering with the texts, it turns out that Thomas isn’t that much of a doubter. He can be contentious and cranky. But he’s more a yes-saying affirmer of Jesus than I had thought.

Thomas lives before any Christian creed or doctrine has solidified. (The Apostles’ Creed gets mentioned around 400 AD.) So Thomas wasn’t doubting a doctrine. But he did have to deal with whether Jesus was dead like any other crucified mortal, or instead, had risen from the dead, as the rest of the disciples were soon claiming. Was there that most unlikely of things, a resurrection?

The other disciples say to Thomas that Jesus himself has shown them that he has risen. Jesus returns after dying and being buried. He speaks to all the disciples but Thomas. Now, sometime later, they converge on Thomas. They want him to accept on hearsay – on their word alone — that Jesus is resurrected. Thomas resists. They didn’t come to believe that Jesus was resurrected only on hearsay. Why should he believe only on hearsay? They want him to accept something utterly implausible and unprecedented – a resurrection — on their word alone.

Thomas turns on them angrily for having a double standard:

Unless I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe.

That’s pretty emphatic – and graphic! But strip away the anger at the presumptuous disciples. The nuts and bolts of his rejoinder may well be that Thomas wants to touch the wounds to be sure Jesus is not a ghost or mirage. He gets over the top in his response because he feels provoked.

In Berkeley years ago I’d take a short cut to campus. It went up a gentle slope called Holy Hill – “Holy,” because a cluster of seminaries is perched there. I’m sure they discussed whether Thomas was unruly, an embarrassment. Isn’t doubt unfaithful?  But is he an unregenerate doubter?

Jesus doesn’t rebuke the other 10 disciples for wanting to see Him as proof of His resurrection. Why should Jesus rebuke Thomas? He doesn’t rebuke him. (So why do we rebuke him for hesitation and doubt? He’ll forever be doubting Thomas – as if he were a fool.)

But remember that Jesus blesses Thomas for wanting to see. Jesus never calls Thomas a doubter.

I confess that before I started reading the passages in John, my impression of Thomas came from a painting by Caravaggio. He’s portrayed there as unkempt and scowling. Worse, he pokes at Jesus’ wounds. But this portrait, however dramatic, is needlessly disparaging. It makes him look weird and a bit daft.

th

Does Thomas really want to “thrust my hand into his side.” Caravaggio thinks so. This is a most striking and melodramatic rendering of Thomas’ threatened “thrust” or “poke.”

But forget the poking for a moment. If Thomas is going to believe in something as utterly impossible as a resurrection, he wants the same direct experience the other disciples were given.  That’s reasonable enough.

When Jesus appears to Thomas, his doubt disappears. He should be honored as Believing Thomas! He doesn’t suffer from Excessive Doubt Syndrome.

**    **

To tell the truth, Jesus is partly responsible for doubts people have about Thomas. Jesus gives a double message. First, Jesus praises Thomas: “Because you have seen me, you believe.” Then he seems to make a different point: “blessed are those who have NOT seen and yet have believed.” Apparently if you believe, you’re OK. And it’s just not that crucial whether you’ve seen Jesus or haven’t.

If you focus on the idea that some who have not seen Jesus are blessed, you might suspect a slight rebuke. Thomas should have believed without having touched or seen Jesus. But read this closely. Jesus says that those who believe without seeing are blessed; he doesn’t say that everyone one should believe without seeing.

Jesus has conflicting aims. He has to recruit the disciples into accepting resurrection — get them all on board, including Thomas. He provides a miracle – his appearance — to convince them all, and blesses Thomas for getting on board.

But Jesus also anticipates later times when people will not see him directly.  Jesus can’t make miraculous appearances to everyone forever.

In the “modern world” no one expects to find Jesus in the living room. We can say, nevertheless, that God’s incarnated spirit descends to be seen and touched by us, to visit us through a manifold Creation – it’s beauty, glory, and terror. Thoreau has the spirit of the divine infiltrate in moments of wonder and beauty available to us daily in the midst of the ordinary: in the glory of autumn leaves, in the radiance of a child’s smile.

**    **

Some translations of the passages in John are kinder to Thomas. They leave out the poking and say merely that Thomas wants to touch the wound. Touching wouldn’t be uncouth but just a reasonable way to check that Jesus isn’t only a mirage, a ghost.

Say we keep the King James version where Thomas wants to “thrust his hand” in the wound. I’d take his words as an angry outburst at the other disciples. They have the gall to say he, Thomas, should believe – and believe without the personal visit they were given. This double standard infuriates him. “I won’t believe unless I can thrust my hand . . . etc”

Touch would uncover a ghost, if ghost it is.  Touch and other channels for sensory contact with the world (taste, sight, hearing, smell) have wide merit.

Holding a child, tasting good brie, hearing a mourning dove or Bach, . . .  The senses allow us to get in touch with what’s valuable and real for us and with what makes life worth living. There is infinite merit in touch.

Communion is a moment of touch and taste. Good music touches the ear. Touch awakens us. If Thomas DID thrust his hand into wounds, that would be uncouth and unkind. But when it comes down to it, we’re not told whether Thomas actually did touch the wounds. Caravaggio takes liberties here. We’re told only that Jesus invites Thomas to touch him.  We don’t know that Thomas was incredulous or poking.

Thomas’ desire for experience of Jesus’ wounds is desire for a sort of communion, like wanting the taste of bread and wine. That desire for touch should expand to include experience of wonderful things generally – children to hug, smiles to smile at, music to hear, knitted caps to stroke. Thomas wants to see and touch his Lord. It’s touching that he wants that.

**  **

We can turn to another figure for whom the merit of touch is absolutely crucial.

The Hebrew Bible tells the story of Job who wants to see the Lord.  Like Thomas, he’s a wounded, angry man. Job wants to see the Lord and interrogate him.  He wants to hear God explain why he suffers. Job laments bitterly:

Man that is born of a woman is of few days and full of trouble; he cometh forth like a flower, and is cut down: if a tree be cut down, there is hope that it will sprout again, that its tender branch will not die. There is hope that through the scent of water it will bud, and bring forth new boughs. But man dieth, and wasteth away . . . his flesh shall have pain, and his soul shall mourn.

Job fails to bring the Lord to court. His complaints are quieted not by a verdict pronouncing anyone guilty or innocent. His complaints are quieted at last by the powerful touch of The Voice from the Whirlwind.  Its music and grandeur – touches him. His suffering drops away.

For both Thomas and Job, touch, and its near relatives – seeing and hearing — are the medium that links the divine and the human. The spirit can touch, and touch can be spiritual.

Job seems abandoned by the Lord and by his friends. He’s lost his home and crops and family. The disciples must have felt abandoned by Jesus at his death. Job needs faith in new blooms. He needs to be touched by sunrise and spring snows and breezes.

On good Friday, after the bombings in Brussels, a friend wrote “We feel awe for life, even in the knowledge of its contradictions and hardships.” After the attacks, mourners had gathered in the square and grieved in the squalor. After three days the thousands begin spontaneously to applaud – warmly, and defiantly. They refused intimidation, and celebrated life.

Mourners seek touch with each other and with the dead. Thomas seeks touch with Jesus, who had died. Job seeks touch with the World that had darkened.

Job is visited by a snow squall, a storm, a Whirlwind.  In what Tennyson calls the greatest poem in any language, we are touched by the flight of hawks and the terrors of leviathan, by falling rain and the infinity of starry nights.

Hope, love, and awe rise above devastation, whether in Paris, at the Twin Towers, in Kristallnacht, or in Brussels.

**   **

The storm speaks and fills Job with awe:

Canst thou command the dawn?  Like clay, the shape of things is changed by it; they stand forth as if clothed in ornament.

The awakening touch of the world wins out. Thomas comes close to the hurts of Jesus, and is affirmed. Job is swept up by the swirl of life, and new dawn appears.

My own belief, no doubt theologically suspect in some circles, is that dawn is resurrection. Amidst terrible suffering the sun also rises.

Thoreau believes this. I believe this. The author of Job believes this.

Like clay, the shape of things

 is changed by it;

they stand forth

as if clothed in ornament.

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An Invited Sermon from Maine

THOREAU’S REVERIES AS RELIGIOUS VISION

 

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You might wonder what I’m doing up here in a pulpit. I might wonder too. I guess this proves — at least for today – that so far as religion goes, for the surveys, I’m neither a NONE (“None of the above”) nor a DONE (“been there, Done that “). I suppose I’m a seeker. I know I’m suspicious of labels. I’m also very privileged, and happy, to be here. When I was about twelve the minister’s wife told me I should be a minister. I let her down, but I’m making up for it. Here I am on the Sabbath, making her happy.

Just so you know — in my early teens I dutifully followed my parents to Church on Sunday at about this time in the morning. It was simple, New England, free-thinking Unitarian, with white steeple, village and all — in Dedham, on the Charles. Concord – Thoreau’s village — was a bit West.

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A stone plaque on the Church green read “Founded in 1638.”  Another marked the site of the First Public School in America, 1644. On the way to school I passed the Oldest Frame House in America, 1636. Thoreau and Emerson and Paul Revere were neighbors, so I enjoyed Communion with the Saints and their Shrines. Recruitment pamphlets in the Church vestibule claimed Emerson, Lincoln, Jefferson, Franklin — even Thoreau – for the Unitarians. It’s true Thoreau attended a Unitarian church in Concord, but at sixteen he stopped going.

If his name is new to you, he became famous for a night in jail, refusing to pay tax for the Federal invasion of Mexico. He defended the abolitionist and rebel John Brown, and wrote immortal essays in the cause of social justice. And he celebrated the Church of the Great Outdoors.

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I used to think religion happens only in houses of worship, but it can happen anywhere, any time. Thoreau’s religion is outside any church. It shines unobtrusively through his writing and through his life and through his outdoors. It is a serene song of religious joy and exuberance.

He discovers gods in the fields and forests; He Steals from the Bagavad Gita, calling these gods “Intelligences” — he hears them singing, laughing, and spinning wool – a joyful family; He sees workers trudging home on the road as if gods in disguise; He hears his body as a musical instrument on which god plays melodies; He preaches what he calls a Newer Testament, the gospel of the present moment; He finds God in the moment, speaking through all things.

If Thoreau has a creed it is this: an experience of full life is a full experience  of the divine.

5760This is not Brand Name religion. It’s not found in Cathedrals, Synagogues, Mosques, Temples or Shrines. He’s one of a kind. Thoreau’s famous book Walden is unorthodox scripture, modeled on the Bagavad Gita in its eighteen books, yoga sessions, and walking excursions. He draws from Christianity without going to church. His pond is a place for Baptism – for cleansing and rebirth. God’s touch is everywhere. Thoreau’s religious practice is reverence and devotion to things of the spirit found everywhere here around us, and his practice is service to others, especially those enslaved and in need. He lives his own Heavens and Hells, his own ways to be still — and his own ways to bury his kin.

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People ask if he’s a monotheist or a polytheist but he wouldn’t care. He exulted in the presence of holiness found all around — in the face of a worker, in revolutionaries like John Brown, in the antics of a loon at mid-pond — in the whispering of trees or the haunting barrens atop Mt Ktaadn. He speaks of God in the singular, and gods in the plural and of the Maker of Walden pond. But more important than God or the gods was whether he –and we — could live in a world that was godly, heavenly: “My thanks-giving is perpetual. O how I laugh when I think of my vague and indefinite riches.”

Our place is a marvel that can shift in and out of Heaven or Hell, boredom, or ecstasy, on a moment’s notice. His political reality was shifting into Hell on earth. He escorted slaves fleeing to Canada. The underground railroad passed through Concord, as it passed through Portland. Then Congress made it illegal to help fleeing blacks. Worse, it compelled citizens to assist in their capture. Thoreau’s powerful essay “Slavery in Massachusetts” was born as a protest oration that he delivered town to town.

He says that now he can’t walk in peace. Walking meditations instill quiet, but his quiet is broken by the sound of rifle shots, slave catchers in the woods. Heaven is overrun. But Hell doesn’t have the last word. He’s startled by the sweet scent of a swamp lily. The lily brings hope that life blooms despite the nearly total dominance — at the moment — of evil. Thoreau is reborn, and despite the troubles leading toward war he hopes for communion and community. He shows affection for an unschooled Canadian woodsman. 23494His first published piece was an obituary for a poor widow who otherwise would have died without notice. He preaches the Church of waters and woods, of wonder and awe. Whether a lily or a sunset, something takes over. We pause in deep appreciation – in reverence.

** **

I have two scriptural passages from Walden to read. The first is an epiphany at the edge of a stream. The second is an epiphany at the edge of the pond.

Here’s the first.

Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in.

I drink at it: but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. I would drink deeper: fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars.

He fishes – looks for joyful nourishment — in time, and drinks of the stream. His eye soaks up fish — and then stars reflected from above. He could drink deeper. There’s endless more to absorb. “Fish in the sky” — He looks down at the pebbly bottom to see fish and stars mingled, a wedding of earth, and sky, and water. And we’re invited to join a religious adventure. “Come! Let’s fish in the starry skies, cast our lines up toward heaven (as well as into the stream)!

He then adds, mysteriously, I cannot count one.” And “I know not the first letter of the alphabet.” He is so overwhelmed by the stars he doesn’t know where to begin counting — and can’t even count one. Someone basking in Wonder has no need to arrange things in alphabetical or numerical order.

Thoreau adds as a final cadence, I have always been regretting that I was not as wise as the day I was born. Christ asks that we become as little children. Thoreau asks us to accept a day of wonder before counting and letters began.

**

Thoreau wants to bring religion into the everyday, free from abstractions and debates among those who pretend to have a clear grasp of God and the gods. Heavens and Hells and boredom are tangible and familiar. Scripture should imaginatively and poetically augment our everyday reality – Why shrink wrap it in doctrine and a hundred dreary prohibitions? Thoreau sees Hells when we’d rather turn aside, and Heavens when we’d rather remain cynical. A befitting reverie – a Religious Vision — delivers marvelous worlds in the here-and-now, worlds that we otherwise miss.

**

Here is a second passage from what he calls his “Newer Testament,” his “gospel of the present moment.” He places himself prayer-like at the edge of the pond:

Why, here is Walden, the same woodland lake that I discovered so many years ago;

He’s remembering a moment when he was very young – and very wise. That memory expands. It becomes a reverie both religious and poetic:

it is the same liquid joy and happiness to itself and its Maker, ay, and it may be to me. It is the work of a brave man surely, . . . He rounded this water with his hand, deepened and clarified it in his thought, and in his will bequeathed it to Concord. I see by its face that it is visited by the same reflection; and I can almost say, Walden, is it you?

imagesWe’re given a pond that draws joy into itself, a pond that enjoys a “liquid joy” that is also her Maker’s joy. God is a joyful Maker, one who can “excite in us a pure morning joy.”

This Maker shares joy with the pond, the same joy that is also offered to Thoreau, kneeling at her edge. “Liquid joy and happiness” flow through the pond and through its Maker and through the pilgrim at its edge – this is a miraculous trinity, three-become-one.

Joy is the condition of life, even of the life of the Creator. We become who we are through everyday looks, smiles of joyful regard – smiles between friends, between mother and child, between pilgrim, creator, and pond. If in those moments we are ready to love, we enter that Heavenly state of “liquid joy and happiness.”

She rounded this water with her hand, deepened and clarified it in her thought, and in her will bequeathed it to Concord.

The gift draws pilgrim, a pond, and Maker to mutual embrace. In a moment of tender yearning, almost a disbelieving intimacy, Thoreau whispers, “Walden, is it you?” Here he finds “a pure morning joy.” To my ear this epiphany by the pond is one of the most moving religious visions in all his writing. Sometimes I smile at his child-like, romantic innocence. I’m not forced to buy into his reverie of Communion and Baptism. But I find it enchanting and gently staggering.

**

Here is an apt passage to end with: Isaiah 55:

You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst forth into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.

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30 Gisele quotes to inspire you in 2016

In case your Thoreau inspirations have run dry, here are a few East of Concord, around Boston.

1382714276_tom-brady-gisele-bundchen-zoom“I think it’s better when you’re natural, when you just do whatever you want.” December 30, 2015 | 6:09 AM

  1. Be cozy: “I am a huge fan of big cotton underpants; they’re comfortable. I wear them every day.”—to Elle in 2007
  2. Smell things: “I love the smell of nature. For example, after it rains and the smell of the earth—it’s my favorite smell. It just smells like wet earth.”—in a 2015 Chanel promo video
  3. Be an earth mother: “I want to get a farm where I am going to live for the rest of my life. I like the idea of a secluded place … I will have horses, my kids will be riding, and there will be chickens and ducks.”—to Harper’s Bazaar in 2010
  4. If that doesn’t work, be a jungle lady: “If I could choose, I’d be bare feet, with animals all around me and living in a tree house. Like Tarzan and Jane, that’s my dream.”—to Vogue in 2015
  5. Accept challenges: “I’m always for the one that’s challenging. That’s where I think you live your life to the fullest.”—to IGN in 2004
  6. Stop Netflix and chill-ing: “My secret is that I watch TV maybe twice a year. I’m not a potato sack; I’ve never sat on my couch.”—to Elle in 2007
  7. Eat good food: “Scrambled eggs, please. Bacon. Toast, with butter, and a cappuccino. [shrugs] I like to eat.”—to Vanity Fair in 2004
  8. Straighten your priorities: “This is what I value: are my children educated, is my husband happy, are people feeling positive energy from me? There should be a magazine to quantify knowledge, understanding and love for people: that is power.”—to MdeMulher in 2014
  9. Have a lame motto: “Do your best. That’s my motto. Do your best. Sometimes you can’t do something, but as long as you try, I think that’s what matters.”—in a 2015 Vogue UK video
  10. Look pretty: “Always, always powder your T-zone and the lines going from your nose down around your mouth so you don’t look like a bulldog.”—to Elle in 2007
  11. Ask yourself this: “When am I going to make $25 million dollars again?”—on CBS This Morning in 2015
  12. Balance it all: “Sometimes when you are a great mom, you’re not so great at your job. And then when you’re good at your job, you’re not so great of a mom or a good wife. It’s a dance that never stops. But it’s beautiful.”—to WSJ magazine in 2013
  13. Depend on others: “In my job you have to remember people are brushing my hair every day. You have to remember the last thing I want (on a day off) is a brush in my hair!”—to the AP in 2014
  14. Listen to others: “I wanted [Ben, her son] to be called River because I wanted something always flowing, immortal. My husband said, ‘There’s no way we’re going to call him River.’”—to Vogue in 2010
  15. Give strange nicknames: “I am a huge admirer of women, especially these days when women are expected to be everything, and do everything. I like to call them ‘warriors of love.’”—to Porter magazine in 2014
  16. Do planks: “Look down. Lift your body. Strengthen your arms. Squeeze your belly. And BE STRONG.”—on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon in 2014
  17. Hug your family: “In our house we are very affectionate. I think it’s very important for the boys to know that it’s OK to hug and to kiss and you’re not less than a man.”—to the AP in 2014
  18. Be whatever: “I think it’s better when you’re natural, when you just do whatever you want, instead of doing classes where I see all these other people holding back because they’ve been trained with certain skills or techniques. I’m like, whatever.”—to IGN in 2004
  19. Be nice: “Gossip is poison.”—to Harper’s Bazaar in 2009
  20. Be present: “If I’m with my kids, I’m not answering my phone. You can’t reach me. With my husband, too. If I’m at work, then I’m at work. If I’m with you, I’m with you. I am in that moment, and there is nothing else.”—to WSJ magazine in 2013
  21. Know this: “Modeling is a superficial business. Beauty is superficial. If it’s real, it comes from inside.”– to Vanity Fair in 2004
  22. Use inspirational hashtags: “#Happiness #gratitude #family #love #nature.”—a 2015 Instagram
  23. Watch Tom Brady feed his soul: “At night if my husband is watching TV and watching football, I have my little book and I put something in my ears so I don’t hear it and I put my light (on) and have my book and I’m like, ‘Ohhh.’ He’s feeding his soul and that’s important to him to watch football. I only want to watch if I’m watching him.”—to the AP in 2014
  24. Put gas in your car: “It’s important to remember that if you don’t put gas in your car, it’s going to stop.”—to Entertainment Tonight in 2005
  25. Stop dropping balls: “I can’t believe they dropped the ball so many times. My husband cannot f—king throw the ball and catch the ball at the same time.”—after the Patriots lost the Super Bowl in 2012
  26. Hog the mic: “I like karaoke and stuff like that. The only problem when I go to karaoke is I don’t let anyone else sing, especially if I have more than one drink.”—on Late Night with Conan O’Brien in 2006
  27. Quit bad habits for the sake of food: “You should quit smoking if you’re smoking, because food tastes a lot better after you quit.”—to Contactmusic.com in 2005
  28. Treat yo’self: “It’s important to me to have some time for myself. So one hour a day is mine. … I read a book. I meditate. I make something. I need to nourish myself in order for me to give to everyone else.”—to WSJ magazine in 2013
  29. Be completely indifferent about your job: “I never wanted to be famous. It’s a job. I work like crazy, but when I go home, I’m happy.”—to Vanity Fair in 2004
  30. Be #blessed: “The first is wake up in the morning and be grateful you are here, alive and healthy. And the second is: Give.”—to Vogue in 2010

Whales, Meteors, Terrorists, Saviors

Herman Melville was mesmerized by a mysterious white whale. A new movie in town, In the Heart of the Sea, recounts the more or less true story of a whale ramming a ship in 1820. The Essex from Nantucket was stove in, in the South Pacific. images-3Moby Dick is a distant relative of that event.

It turns out that Melville was fascinated by a white whale and also by an ominous white meteor streaming through the sky — not unlike Moby Dick streaming through the sea.

Both whale and meteor were interruptions of the commonplace natural order, fascinating and frightening to behold, in imagination if not first hand. Whether hopefully auspicious or fearfully ominous, they aroused passions in the extreme.

images-4The giant meteor appeared along the East Coast in 1850 startling viewers by its brightness and size. It appeared mid-day which made its luminescence even more other-worldly. There were no photographs but for authentication the papers turned to trusty corner policemen, one of whom said it was as big as a house.

This was a minutes-long phase of communication from the heavens to awed street-bound witnesses and to those citizens who came on hyperbolic, even  hysterical accounts in the papers over the next few days and weeks. Prophets and seers had a field day.

md_234Christmas, if not Hanukkah,  commemorates wise men responding to a striking, message-bearing star in the East. Perhaps they were not wise before witnessing it, but became wise in retrospect because they noticed — and interpreted, and acted on their interpretation.

But not all meteors are welcome. The startling luminescence of Trump or a terrorist presages unwelcome disaster. — Do I need to add, “for some”?

 

For Melville, this call of the meteor parallels the call of the white whale. The whale, as the illustrator Rockwell Kent knows, addresses the stars who address him in return. The whale also famously addresses Ahab, who addresses him with a curse and harpoon.

The Whale and Ahab and Stars also address we who are readers of Ishmael’s tale of Ahab’s obsession. Those who fail to sail the South Pacific with Melville in search of a white whale nevertheless can witness the whiteness of a meteor falling over an Eastern seaboard —  and be mesmerized by its cleaving brilliance and portents.

Apart from learning of the Essex or reading Moby Dick there is today’s fraught address at the cinema where you can find In the Heart of the Sea giving you two hours of awe and adventure, disaster and concluding cannibalism.

♦♦

The whiteness of the whale prompts Ahab to fury; the whiteness of the meteor awakens both Melville and Thoreau to an otherworldly cleaving of the commonplace natural, political, and social order of things. For both, the meteor marks the luminous appearance and plummeting death of the abolitionist and insurrectionist, John Brown.

Thomas_Hovenden_Last_Moments_of_John_Brown_1884Brown was hanged December 2, 1859. For Thoreau, “the meteor John Brown” is a Christ in the midst of the rabble who would crucify him. For Melville, John Brown is a meteor of war, and “weird.”

Melville publishes his slim Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War in 1866, seven years after Brown’s hanging in Charleston in 1859, and one year after the war ended. Brown anticipates those slaughters and begins them — without authorization. Meteors are nature’s loose cannons. Brown was the North’s loose cannon.

Melville opens his book with a poem, “The Portent.”

Hanging from the beam,

Slowly swaying (such the law),

Gaunt the shadow on your green,  Shenandoah!

johnbrown67The cut is on the crown  (Lo, John Brown),

And the stabs shall heal no more.

Hidden in the cap  Is the anguish none can draw;

So your future veils its face, Shenandoah!

But the streaming beard is shown

(Weird John Brown),

The meteor of the war.

 Melville and Thoreau encountered Brown as a flash of illumination associated with prophecy and doom. Thoreau makes him a saint and doomed hero; Melville makes him a portent of war and quite “weird.” The prophet is as weird as the prophecy — unmanageable, quixotic, troubling, perhaps demonic.

♦♦

The meteor is a source of startling address that troubles and puzzles. Its meaning is unfinished and fraught.

images-5Not unlike the years anticipating the Civil War, we live today in a world of violence, portents, and prophecy. Jeremiah would give a knowing nod.

Our passions are stirred and left stirred. Stark, striking events invade and unleash passions, desires, and imaginations of good or ill to come. Let’s hope Trump and Cruz are a flash in the pan, easily doused.

But I should add, why pick on them rather than the crowds they galvanize? They are but the tip of an iceberg, the flash of a fin, threatening the ship.

 The dark lights from the Middle East — drownings, hangings, car rammings, bombings, stabbings, ship-wreaked states, Ishmaels cast into the wilderness — are also the tip of an iceberg, the flash of a fin, threatening the ship and fit for Jeremiads.