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Herman Melville, Moby-Dick, or the Whale

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Disclaimer

The contents of this website are for contemplative purposes only. No medical advice will be given, and emails asking for medical advice will be ignored.

Although patient vignettes are based on my experiences with real individuals, I liberally change details to maintain patient confidentiality.

I also reserve the right to change old postings to correct errors, and to delete comments that include obscene language or that I deem abusive to me or other commentators.  If you are looking for a open mind, I suggest you consult a neurosurgeon.

Sunday
Mar202016

Seven Last Words I: "Father, Forgive Them"

“Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” Luke 23:24.

Words change in their connotations. Cool, for instance, means something completely different from what it meant fifty years ago, transforming from an observation about temperature to a description of alignment with the latest fashion. Fantastic, another changing word, once meant of or about a fantasy, but now more often means simply very good.

Regretfully, amnesty is one more word whose meaning has shiftedin the last few years. Amnesty used to mean to forgive, to wipe clean. Amnesty was an act of love and compassion. These days it is a politically charged word, and means to let undocumented immigrants apply for citizenship without risk of deportation, something many people these days consider a serious injustice.

Amnesty used to be a great word. To forgive another person and wipe the slate clean is a very special kind of forgiveness, one that exceeds our ordinary sense of the word. Often when we find the courage to forgive, it is a half-hearted gesture. “Forget about it” or “don’t worry about it” is closer to what we mean. We want to forgive, but the casual way we do it means we have not completely set aside the hurt we feel.

But to wipe the slate clean, to give the other person a complete, new start, is a rare gift. It deserves its own word. It is regrettable that politics has deprived our language of the perfect term for it.

On the cross, Jesus forgives his murderers, and does so with compassion. This is not a typical act of forgiveness, but rather an act of amnesty, a complete forgiveness. Jesus looks into the hearts of his killers and finds that they do not know what they are doing. He is giving them the benefit of the doubt, and in a very compassionate way: When he says he forgives them because they do not know what they are doing, he is implying that if his killers knew what they were doing, they would not be doing it. Their fault is not in being evil, but in not knowing good from evil.

 In our human eyes, we may not see things the way Jesus does, but since Jesus is divine, we must take his intuition very seriously. Jesus is saying that his killers would have done the right thing if they had known what it was, even though in reality the right thing is the opposite of what they do.

Amnesty is the root, the wellspring, of true forgiveness. Forgiveness only God can give. To understand that humans, being children of God, are always good at their deepest level, is an insight only an infinitely loving God can have. In God's eyes, even our worst acts have some motivation in goodness — we cannot escape being good; we cannot completely reject God, no matter how hard we try.

Evil is not the opposite of good, it is the absence of good. And this is very different from the way we usually think of evil. Absence can be filled up. Opposite can only be destroyed. Thus Jesus is no destroyer, but a redeemer.

It is crucial that we all seek out, and mete out to others, pure forgiveness -- amnesty -- before our deaths. Only in this way can we be redeemed after death. In these Last Words, Jesus is offering just such amnesty to us.

This is a very optimistic view of evil; perhaps too optimistic for most people. Many people may have difficulty with the idea that creation is good and that evil is only a perversion of goodness and is not a thing itself. Evil seems so real. But it is true, if one thinks about it. Beauty and and ugliness are considered opposites, but they not two equal substances. Ugliness is the absence of beauty, but not a thing itself. Or take hatred, which is also not a thing, but the absence of love. We know this because love can fill up and remove hatred, and beauty can fill up and remove ugliness, but it doesn’t work the other way around. Beauty defines ugliness but ugliness does not define beauty. We never think of something beautiful as an absence of ugliness. We never think of love as the absence of hate. It simply doesn’t work that way.

So, while it is optimistic to think of evil not as truly existing but as being the absence of the attributes of God, it is a fair way to view creation. And since sin and evil are the absence of God rather than the opposite of God, it is through forgiveness -- amnesty -- that God can fill up evil, remove it, and render it harmless.

For a complete list of links to the seven essays on this topic, please go here.

Thursday
Mar102016

Seven Last Words: Introduction

As part of my Lenten devotions, I started reading the book Seven Last Words by James Martin, SJ. As Fr. Martin explains, there is a tradition, today more common in Protestant churches than Catholic ones, of reflecting during Holy Week on the seven phrases that Jesus uttered on the day of his crucifixion. In the Catholic version of the tradition, churches will invite seven different people to comment on each one of the quotations at a service on Good Friday. The invitees are not all priests — some are laymen, women, and sometimes even non-Catholics.

The practice is not widely observed; I have never been a member of a church parish that practiced this. I have seen it at a few Baptist churches, however. Since I know that no one is ever likely to invite me to do anything of the sort, I am taking it on myself in the time we have left until Easter (March 27) to do the reflections myself.

This is a departure from the usual subject matter of my blog, I realize. But it is an exercise I would like to go through, if for not other reason than to give voice to ideas I have touched on at various times in my essays, but never directly expressed.

In the world, we can find every degree of spiritualism, from those who live practically every moment in prayer to those who reject religion in every way. My sympathies lie towards the religious side: I have never thought it possible to live without some kind of spiritual life. To live with the belief that there is nothing transcendent about the universe is, in my view, to live an empty life. Many people, I know, strongly disagree; but for me, the universe cannot simply exist, it must have a meaning, a purpose. There is no sense in my fighting the idea. Purpose has much more of a hold on me than I have a hold on it.

I have never attempted biblical reflections before, at least not aloud. These reflections are solely my own, but they are informed by my Catholic faith. I lay no claims on them as infallibly adhering to Church doctrine (although I think they are close). I do not desire to play the theologian. I say this not because I have anything against theologians, but because arguments about things like the biblical justification for the sacraments, or the meaning of “justification through faith,” or the meaning of the Eucharist, are not my focus here. They are interesting, but not essential. They are endpoints for belief, not its foundation.

The central challenge of religion for me is not theological knowledge, which is arguable, but faith, which is not. Faith is a profound mystery. How it works, what it means, these things elude me. This is not to say that faith itself eludes me; I feel it, but I don’t know exactly what it is. Faith, in this sense, is like love. Sometimes we find that we have loved another person without realizing it, such as when a friend moves out of town and we feel his absence. Brothers and sisters can love like that — they may live in and out of contact with one another for decades, only to discover late in life how deeply they cared for each other after all. Other times love is palpable and constant, like a mother’s love for her child, or the love of newlyweds, of of partners who have been committed to one another for decades.

Faith is like this. Sometimes faith is bold and intense, as present and awesome as a mountain. Other times it is present, but unnoticed. We have faith in things that we may not realize we believe in until that faith is threatened or betrayed. My faith in God has been like that. I am not always aware I believe in God, and sometimes almost think I don’t, until something happens that threatens that faith, and then suddenly it is plain. Then it emerges, like a flag out of the fog of battle.

And that is what these reflections will be about. Not about theology, not about religion, but about something deeper. Faith, made plain.

The Seven Last Words of Christ are:

“Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” Luke 23:24.

“Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” Luke 23:43.

“My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” Mark 15:34; Matthew 27:46.

“Woman, here is your son….Here is your mother.” John 19:26-27.

“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Luke 23:46.

“I am thirsty.” John 19:28.

“It is finished.” John 19:30.

 

For a complete list of links to the seven essays on this topic, please go here.

Saturday
Feb202016

Harper Lee (1926-2016)

Rest in peace, Harper Lee.

To Kill a Mockingbird is in the upper echelon of American novels, one of the books widely taught in American schools that allows me to continue to hope for the future of public education. It was a runaway success because Lee was able to take a serious literary concept and made it optimistic and accessible to the general population. This is no mean feat. If it were easy, all literary giants would be billionaires. We all know how that is working out.

In Mockingbird, Lee had something important to say and found a nation of readers that wanted and needed to hear it. She made her statement in a succinct and entertaining fashion. Rarely do literary writers combine a crowd-pleasing, popular style with a timely and important message, and Harper Lee was able to do that.

Her great achievement was to be the right writer at the right time. An accomplishment, indeed.

A year ago my daughter had to write a paper about To Kill a Mockingbird for school, and since I had forgotten a lot of the details, I re-read the chapter where Atticus shoots the rabid dog. I had forgotten how tightly woven and concise Harper Lee was, her writing as clear and concentrated as nectar. In that chapter, a rabid dog is loose in town, and several citizens get together to draft Atticus to shoot it, knowing Atticus had the reputation of being the best shot in town. Atticus was reluctant to do the job because he had so carefully taught his own children to reject violence and didn't want them to see that he was an expert at a violent skill.

But in the end, Atticus shot the dog because the job had to be done and he was the best candidate to do it. Rather than turn away, he faced the duty, and did so with dignity and compassion. Scout understood this to mean that violence should be avoided, but when it cannot, violent power is best wielded with compassion, skill, and good judgment. If you are going to do a nasty job, do it right.

A great chapter and a great novel. And as it true with all great novels, it was even more of a pleasure sharing it with my daughter than it was reading it myself.

Atticus said to Jem one day, "I’d rather you shot at tin cans in the backyard, but I know you’ll go after birds. Shoot all the blue jays you want, if you can hit ‘em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird." That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and I asked Miss Maudie about it. "Your father’s right," she said. "Mockingbirds don’t do one thing except make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corn cribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”
― Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
Tuesday
Feb162016

Quote of the Week

"I mean isn't that what's the matter, when you get right down to it? I mean even more than the profit motive or the loss of spiritual values or the fear of the bomb or any of those things? Or maybe it's the result of those things; maybe it's what happened when all those things start working at once without any cultural tradition to absorb them. Anyway, whatever it's the result of, it's what's killing the United States. I mean isn't it? This steady, insistent vulgarizing of every idea and every emotion into some kind of pre-digested intellectual baby food: this optimistic, smiling-though, easy-way out sentimentality in everybody's view of life?"

-- Richard Yates, Revolutionary Road, 1961.

Saturday
Feb062016

"Stop Playing That Song!"

One of my favorite features of Apple Music is its curated playlists. These song lists, which are created by Apple music experts, are collections of recordings that often center around a central concept, sometimes almost randomly chosen -- anything from a road trip to the best hits of a decade to songs about math.

The world of music is broad and deep. I believe in the curator, the person who sounds out the depths, throws out the seine net, and returns with a variety of experiences that, left to myself, I would never have considered. Some are completely new experiences. Some are simply a new look at familiar music. I, as anyone, can be sadly predictable in my choices, even when I think I am searching out new things. It helps to listen to people who have different tastes or attitudes. They take me out of my usual rut and help us to see things in a new way.

Lately I have been listening to an Apple playlist called "Stop Playing That Song!" It is a compilation of recordings used in political campaign rallies that the artists forced the candidates to stop playing.

The description reads: "Politicians love to pump up the crowd at rallies and events by blasting rock classics -- but unfortunately they don't always ask the artists for permission. This killer collection features...rockers who weren't exactly thrilled to find their songs hijacked by politicians on the campaign trail."

The list includes a few songs that are obvious when you think about it:

             "Born to in the U.S.A." -- Bruce Springsteen

             "I Won't Back Down" -- Tom Petty

             "We're Not Gonna Take It" -- Twisted Sister

             "Right Now" -- Van Halen

 

Others make no sense to me, like "The Sprit of Radio" by Rush and "The Boys of Summer" by Don Henley.

The fun is guessing which politicians were told to get lost by the artists. In my mind's eye I can see Chris Christie getting a cease-and-desist from the Boss, and Ted Cruz being told to take off by Tom Petty.

But the list doesn't say who the offending politicians were, and that is part of the pleasure. Each time I listen to the list, I think of a different politician attached to each song, and it quickens my step on the treadmill.

 

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