Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Different Values

Like many others, I watched the Inauguration yesterday. I thought it was pure pageantry, with press commentary more on the level of the description of Rose Bowl floats than news. Rick Warren’s prayer, for example, made the appallingly ignorant point that “Now today we rejoice not only in America's peaceful transfer of power for the 44th time.” I have so far found no-one in the media who pointed out that four of those transfers were at the point of a bullet: Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, Kennedy. So many brains were checked at the door, Warren’s and those of the people whose job it is to frame these events for the nation. The adulation of Obama worries me.

So when our new president's speech moved into the familiar territory of national purpose and national greatness, even with its explicit call to buckle down to the work we need to do, it sounded to me like pretty much the same political rhetoric we have heard so many times before. I don’t really want to parse the speech, except to say that it repeated the litany of American self-help heard so often before. The closest it came to a national ethic of sharing was really a call to equal access to the tools of success: “The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our gross domestic product, but on the reach of our prosperity; on our ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart — not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good..”

Not out of charity. Faith, hope, charity (to use the traditional words). But the greatest of these is charity. Obama has invited comparisons to Lincoln, and the word charity has an important place in Lincoln’s vocabulary: “With Malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right.” Of course, what Obama means is giving money to people without corresponding expectations. But that has some theological issues as well. Agape being one of them. As a Christian I was disappointed.

What does a monk say to all this? Monks, of course, can have political opinions, some with passion. Fr. Huntington, the founder of OHC, certainly did. Fr. Huntington’s passion was for fairness and justice and prosperity for working people. He was on the side of ordinary people who worked hard and did not get a fair shake from the system. He joined the labor movement when it was small and unpopular and remained faithful to it to his life’s end. He was not afraid of political engagement when that seemed appropriate. He was a dedicated, lifelong supporter of his good friend Henry George and the Single Tax. That idea flourished briefly toward the end of the 19th Century, with its apogee in George’s campaign for Mayor of New York City in 1886. Huntington actively campaigned for George, and was criticized for it.

But there is another monastic tradition as well. It doesn’t seem political, but it is, because it raises the possibility of a different set of values, not based on having more but on having enough. The implicit promise of much American political rhetoric is, Vote for me and I will lead you into greater prosperity. More is what we want, and More is what we vote for. We don’t often ask for a life with Less so that we can pursue other values. We don’t often choose what is simpler except in retrospective nostalgia, making the point, as Obama did, that enduring hardship, having Less, was the price that our forebears paid so that we could have More now.

But for monks, More is the problem. It is a huge temptation. It is our default setting as human beings to want More. Humility is hard. Having Less is hard. Wanting Less is even harder.

So I was struck by a saying I read the other day which has stayed in my mind. I have begun a slow reading of The Book of Mystical Chapters: Meditations on the Soul’s Ascent from the Desert Fathers and Other Christian Contemplatives, by John Anthony McGuckin . It is a collection of three “centuries” of sayings from the desert monastic tradition.

The saying is from Abba Philemon, quoted from the Philokalia:

Set your mind on following the path of the saints.
Prefer a simple style of life.
Wear unremarkable clothes.
Eat simple food.
Behave in an unaffected manner.
Don’t strut around as if you were important.
Speak from your heart.

The monastic path is not the path for everyone. The pursuit of economic plenty is necessary for us all, monks included. Monasteries, ours included, need financial help (our gas bill for heating this month is $13,000! It’s a big place serving a lot of people! It’s been cold!) Part of the engine, the energy, that drives economic growth is the desire for More. So More is not wrong, not bad, in fact, it is necessary.

But More is not the only value. It needs to be in relation, sometimes a relation of tension, with the value of Less, the value of enough but not more. Human society needs people who live differently, whose values point to a path chosen less often but none the less important for that. It needs this difference in order to keep open the path of reflection, to re-open the question of generosity, of charity in precisely the sense of helping others who have little opportunity to give back.

The question ultimately is the heart. When you get More, does it open your heart, does it allow you to speak the Word that made you and everything you have? And when you choose the simpler path, does it make you humble and appreciative of the regard and generosity of others, on whom you now depend? Or does it bring pride and a sense of moral superiority? Which is one of the dangers for monks.

More and Less need each other. In the spiritual life and in the life of the nation.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

California Time

Away this week. Writing on the plane from Denver to LGA, about 2 hours out. I am on the Council of the Order, five members who advise the Superior and are empowered to make some decisions. Lots to talk about in our meeting this time. We had planned well before the fire to have it in Santa Barbara, and so it was providential that we were there. We were at St. Mary’s Retreat House, next to the Old Mission. It was founded in 1954 by the Sisterhood of the Holy Nativity, in part to provide a retreat place for women because Mount Calvary did not then admit men. The Sisters have graciously welcomed our brothers and given them a temporary home.

A few days before the meetings began I visited some old friends who live in the Silverlake area of Los Angeles. They were among my California friends who visited me in East Harlem, and so it was a special joy to be with them. We did some fun things, including going to a movie props parking lot sale, a visit to the new Roman Catholic Cathedral and the new Disney Concert Hall, lunch at Philippe’s (a venerable sandwich joint in Chinatown). We went see the new Clint Eastwood movie, Grand Torino, which I liked a lot, at the restored Vista Theatre, which has a truly kitschy Egyptian motif.

On Sunday I preached at All Saints Episcopal Church, Highland Park, which is between Los Angeles and Pasadena. All Saints is one of the larger and more active bilingual congregations in the Diocese of Los Angeles, with a pretty good English language congregation at 10am and a larger Spanish speaking congregation at 12:30. The Rector, Tom Callard, is a wonderful priest who is in his second or third year there.

The Superior called Monday morning to ask if I could arrive in Santa Barbara by 11:15. The brothers were going to drive up to Mount Calvary to see the ruins. I made it, and we went up.

What can I say? I’d already seen the pictures, so I knew what I would see. But there is no substitute for a direct, physical experience. I walked through the remains of the front door, which have become iconic. I will tell you that I never really liked the repainting of St. John and Our Lady of Sorrows. I began to weep. And then along came one of the brothers and we just quietly moved around the edge of the building and I regained my composure and began to notice things. How odd stucco on wire mesh looks – sort of folded and draped. How the things that survived were the things that don’t burn – Duhhh you might say, but touching and smelling and walking on that truth, having known what was there and isn’t there any more, in fact, doesn’t even exist any more, is different than knowing it intellectually, different than having to reconstruct the past on an archaeological dig. How the still-standing parts were mostly the poured concrete substructures. The broken tiles. The occasional pottery that fire and water and decomposure cannot destroy.

And another thing. All the way up and back, Nick, our Prior in Santa Barbara, kept pointing to this house that burned and that one, right next to it, that didn’t burn. For no discernible reason. There’s an old joke about American Airlines, based in Dallas, which had (it was rumored) a policy of having two pilots on every flight, one of them a saved Christian and the other something else. Just in case. Of the Rapture. You never know. Well, here it was, right before our eyes. As Our Lord said, Two will be working in the field. One will be taken and one will be left.

I’ll write more later.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

At Long Last – Shopping!

The monastery had a fairly full guest house for the week between Christmas and New Year. We usually close every Sunday evening to have a community day off on Monday, but between Christmas and New Year we’re open and it is wonderful, mostly, with old friends and some folks who are happy to be with us for some or all of that time. I certainly remember plenty of lonely times around Christmas and New Year when I was a parish priest and understand how nice it is to have a community to spend the holidays with.

We bade a fond farewell to the last of the guests on New Year’s Day after Vespers, which we moved up to 3pm, and then more or less collapsed into a time of rest and silence. Which has been wonderful.

Much of yesterday I was working in the Library. We have lots and lots of neat books that have been crying out to be cataloged, and since to me working in a library is next thing to blissful sandbox play time, I let myself play in the Library. It was great. Then today I had a piece of work I had been putting off for some time, which in the way of such things seemed to grow more daunting the more I put it off. But in fact I got through it in about 3 hours this morning, and then decided, I need to get out and do something.

I got in the car and drove toward Kingston. I had a pretty good hamburger (actually, a bacon cheeseburger) at the pretty good Port Ewen Diner, and then headed off to the mall, where I purposed to look at carry-on luggage at Target and see a movie.

Once there, the parking lot was pretty full. I was trying to park near the door near the movie section, and couldn’t get a place there, so I had to settle for something further out in the tundra, near the entrance to Macy’s. I went in and walked to the cinema section and checked the showing times for Doubt, and then headed for Target. Which was, of course, at the exact opposite end of the mall.

I must make a confession. I am a terrible shopper. If there are more than 2 things I have purposed to check out, unless I write them down, I will forget half of them and remember them on the way home. I get into a store and I clutch. I get all Consumer Report-ish about things, obsessing about things I really don’t care about. And, once I found the luggage in Target, which was of course at the exact other end of that very large store, I got all geeky and started to obsess about zippers and compartments and wondering if this one with the computer pocket in the front was better than that one with the computer pocket in the back, and so forth. This went on for some time, until I woke up and realized, I don’t want any of these suitcases. They’re far too small, once I pack my habit and enough clothes and other stuff to get me through a week or so. What was I thinking? A carry-on? Me? Get real.

I got real and sauntered out of the store. Now when I was young, and this is still true in some stores in Manhattan, if you come in, you came in to buy, so one prepares one’s face and a conversation in case the salesperson stops you with The Look, and you have to justify yourself, leaving empty handed. A sort of fraud. Under judgment. So I reflexively prepared myself, but of course, no-one really cares if you leave Target without buying something. And anyway, “No, I was just looking”, sounds faintly ridiculous in that context.

I started walking back to the cinemas, and wandered into Best Buy. I’m more comfortable in the computer and audio-video commercial environment, but as I looked around, I realized something I had noticed subconsciously already in Target. There were lots of people looking, and not very many people buying. And the ones buying were looking at the pricier items and then getting a little black case or a dvd or something. As I wandered back to the cinema, my lengthy hike gave me time to notice the people more carefully. Lots of young people, not really shopping, but just being young together. And also lots of older people not really shopping either. In fact, much of the population of the mall was people like me who were really not shopping, but just there for a while.

This is so different from Manhattan. There basically the whole island is one form of shopping or another. But there are a lot of other things as well, and the arteries that move you from shop to shop also move people to work and home and hospitals and schools and churches and all the other activities of life. Commerce is just one element, and the social life is natural. Well, the social life in the mall is natural as well, except that the environment is entirely commercial.

There are a lot of cheap shots one can take at malls, and maybe it is true that they are dinosaurs about to morph into something else, what with internet shopping on Amazon and so forth. But here were lots of people doing what they had learned to do over a couple of generations – they wanted to be out, in public, with other people, and this is the space that’s available to them. That's sweet, I think.

So I relaxed and decided to let my inner mall child out. I enjoyed the movie too. And – a monastic victory of sorts – the only things I bought today were a hamburger at that pretty old fashioned diner, and a (senior priced) ticket to Doubt.

Happy New Year.