Author Archives: Monksway

Some Notes on “I,” “Me,” “Mine”

I am not going to delve into grammar or the use of language, though that is a topic worthy of reflection also.  This is simply a collection of observations, reflections, questions, etc., on a topic of enormous importance for all the great spiritualities and all the major religions.  To put it more negatively way, though clearer, if you get this  wrong, you will get lost in a serious way.  I speak from experience!  So:  Who am I?  What is being pointed at when we have the word “I”?   The great spiritual question!

Lets start with Monchanin and Abhishiktananda.  Monchanin was a genuine intellectual, a brilliant thinker who was well-read in theology and philosophy, and at the same time a true spiritual man who sought to somehow translate the spiritual heritage of India into Christian terms.  Abhishiktananda was very different in personality and in his approach to India once he really got into it.  He was very impatient with intellectual /conceptual investigations, but rather sought to dive straight into the experience of India’s Advaita tradition, especially as exemplified by the sannyasi.  The two men respected each other, and each had their own strengths and weaknesses.  But also each had their criticisms of the other.  Monchanin had this interesting thing to say about Abhishiktananda toward the end of their companionship at Shantivanam.  He was worried about the so-called experiences that Abhishiktananda had related from his extensive sojourns in solitude and meditation.  Here is the quote from a letter he wrote:

“Serious divergences between us have cast a shadow over these last years; I think he goes too far in his concessions to Hinduism, and it seems to me more and more doubtful that the essence of Christianity can be recovered on the other side of Advaita.  Advaita, like yoga and more than it, is an abyss.  Whoever in an experience of vertigo throws himself into it does not know what he will find at the bottom.  I am afraid he may find himself rather than the living trinitarian God.”

Very interesting indeed!  That last sentence is very telling, and it shows a faulty line of thought.  But how to proceed to evade Monchanin’s conceptual trap? 

From a certain standpoint it is impossible to tell what another person is experiencing, but there are certain signs and signals about what that experience may be all about.  When it comes to the Ultimate Reality which we call God, I certainly don’t mean anything dramatic—I am not a member of the “miracle and special effects” school of religious authenticity.  No, what we might look for is a depth of person there, a deepening of compassion, a broadening of vision, an inner freedom….and from what I can tell from Abhishiktananda’s diary and letters, that is largely there.  But, then again, we really can’t know, and it’s best to leave individual cases alone.  But Monchanin’s words do raise a legitimate possibility of an inquiry in a general sense.  He seems to be saying that when we go deep into our self in meditation we might only encounter our own self OR God.  He assumes the “separate self” that then must be “united” with God.  This is who you are and the whole point of life and existence and Christian identity.  But advaita presents a different vision of who we are.

 Monchanin approaches advaita conceptually, and it’s practically impossible to reconcile that with these Christian concepts of “who I am,” and Christian concepts of that “I’s” relationship to the Ultimate Reality.    But Monchanin’s concern is legitimate because there is a very real way of getting trapped within one’s own ego identity within one’s extensive meditation.  Some American Zen people have written a whole book about it.  And consider these cautionary words from Ramana Maharshi:

“He meditates, he thinks he is meditating, he is pleased with the fact that he is meditating; where does that get him, apart from strengthening his ego?”

(Words that resonate well with our Desert Fathers!)

Authentic advaita is NOT about “supersizing” the ego self; quite the contrary.

But I also fear that Monchanin’s words do seriously lead one away from a most deep and profound realization.  I think he misses something important because he is so intensely committed to standard traditional theological language; and that great philosopher of language, Wittgenstein, warned us:  the limits of our language are the limits of our world and our thinking.  A Christian advaita definitely shatters the usual patterns of Christian theology, and also how we answer that question:  Who am I?  A number of Christian mystics and profound theologians have caught a glimpse of a Christian advaita without using that same language.

Consider these quote from Catherine of Genoa, a late medieval mystic:

“In God is my being, my I, my strength, my bliss, my desire. But this I that I often call so…in truth I no longer know what the I is, or the Mine, or desire, or the good, or bliss.”

“I see without eyes, and I hear without ears. I feel without feeling and taste without tasting. I know neither form nor measure; for without seeing I yet behold an operation so divine that the words I first used, perfection, purity, and the like, seem to me now mere lies in the presence of truth. . . . Nor can I any longer say, “My God, my all.” Everything is mine, for all that is God’s seem to be wholly mine. I am mute and lost in God…God so transforms the soul in Him that it knows nothing other than God, and He continues to draw it up into His fiery love until He restores it to that pure state from which it first issued.”

And then there’s this more radical statement from her:

“My “me” is God nor do I recognize any other “me” except my God himself.”

Basically, Catherine is a pointer to a Christian version of nondualism.  It is there.  And it can be found in a number of other Christian mystics, like Eckhart.  (And interestingly enough, Catherine’s words are very much in tune with Rabia, the great female Sufi.)  Abhishiktananda discovered this nondualism through his immersion in India and the Upanishads, the sannyasi tradition, and the lived experience of the holy men he encountered there.  He discovered that the “I Am” of God is spoken in his heart, and from that Absolute flows the little, the relative, the contingent “I am” of his own being.  This “little I am” is what we might call the peripheral ego, the “nafs” of the Sufis; and modern spirituality speaks of “letting it go,” the Sufis call it “fana,” “annihilation(!), the old Christian mystics call it a “death of the self.”  Your “I am” gets lost in the “I Am” of God.  But this will seem like becoming “nobody,” a nothing with no name, etc.  

Modern sensibility is not comfortable to say the least with the language of classical spirituality of any tradition; you know, all that stuff about “me” dying to self, annihilation,  etc.  (even the language of Jesus in the Gospels causes some to wince or just ignore or interpret very metaphorically).  The science of psychology is all about building up the ego, helping it function well.  It does not know or recognize the area of experience which we are alluding to.  A pop guru of the ‘60s, Ram Dass, once said that psychologists are “fender repairmen”—might be good to remember that he had been a Harvard psychologist before he “dropped out.”  What he means is that psychology is really only concerned with the periphery of the human identity, not the core reality.  It cannot answer the question: who am I?  It cannot recognize that the ego self is embedded in a much deeper sense of self that cannot be objectified, cannot be the object of our analysis.

An entry from Abhishiktananda’s Diary, a reflection on the moment of his massive heart attack that soon led to his death:

“Seeing myself so helpless, incapable of any thought or movement, I was released from being identified with this ‘I’ which until then had thought, willed, rushed about, was anxious about each and every thing.  Disconnection!  That whole consciousness in which I habitually lived was no longer mine, but I, I still was.”

Perhaps we can borrow something from Buddhism to shed some more light on this topic.  Mahayana Buddhism has this central doctrine of the Two Truths: relative truth and absolute truth.  There are extensive and elaborate explanations of these, but here is a brief, succinct account from the magazine Lion’s Roar:

“What is the relationship between absolute reality-whatever that may be-and the relative world we inhabit? That question is at the heart of all religions. Mahayana Buddhism’s answer is called the two truths.

Relative truth includes all the dualistic phenomena- ourselves, other beings, material objects, thoughts, emotions, concepts-that make up our lives in this world. These are sometimes called maya, or illusion, because we mistakenly believe they are solid, separate, and independent realities. But the problem is not relative truth itself, which is basically good, but our misunderstanding of its nature. That is revealed when we understand….

Absolute truth is the reality beyond dualism of any kind. It’s also the true nature of relative phenomena. In Mahayana Buddhism, it can be called emptiness or interdependence. Thich Nhat Hanh uses the term “interbeing.” In Vajrayana Buddhism, absolute reality is also referred to as space, complete openness, or primordial purity.

The two truths are what’s called a provisional teaching in Buddhism-helpful for where we are on our path but not the final truth. The final truth is that there is only one reality, and it unites the relative and absolute. Absolute truth is the true nature of the relative. Relative truth is the manifestation of the absolute.”

So perhaps it can be helpful to see our little ego self to be part of that relative truth of our everyday conventional existence.  It has its importance as it is the ground of the manifestation of the absolute truth of our existence and our identity.  Therefore it is good and proper to have a healthy ego, and the psychologist has a true role in this; but he/she do not have access to the absolute truth of our identity with the tools of their profession.

All human beings, but especially Westerners, have this amazing capacity to build up this ego self, becoming an elaborate construct like one of those fantastic sand castles some kids build out of beach sand.  And I am afraid this ego construction is about as durable as that beach construction!  Thus, the deep-seated anxiety about the whole project, and the therapist is there to help us live with that.  We use wealth, power, status, achievements, reputation, sex, badges and markers of all kinds, etc., etc. in this construction.  Even formal religion does not always provide a true diagnostic of what’s going on but in fact enhances the whole project with a religious clad version of all the above.  Thomas Merton once said that it is truly a gift to meet the Zen “man of no title.”

The issue is “personhood.”  I am a person; God is a person.  Think how important that is especially in western thought.  Politics and philosophy and religion and economics and psychology all are focused on this “reality.”  Every one is looking for personal happiness, personal fulfillment, personal success, personal satisfaction, etc.  But what is this “person,” what is personhood?”  Again, what is this “I” that is doing all this seeking?  Conservative Christians reject Buddhism and other Asian religions because these seem to deny or diminish this reality we call “personhood,” in regard to both the human and the divine.  After all, what’s important for them is the “personal relationship” to Jesus, to God.  The personhood of God and the personhood of the human being are the two poles around which their whole religious consciousness moves.  In a sense one can see what their concern is; but one can also see the danger in this language of utter superficiality and trivializing the religious journey—which happens all too often.  The “nafs,” the peripheral ego, becomes the norm and the guiding light to delineate “personhood.”  Modern western culture almost automatically sets you up for this problem.  But they also make the same mistake that Monchanin made, overlooking something very important.

Here I will recall one of my favorite quotes from Aquinas:  “At the end of all our knowing we know God as something unknown; we are united with him as with something wholly unknown.”  Indeed.

And who we are, then, is immersed in the depths of that very Mystery.  At one point Abhishiktananda asks: “what constitutes personhood?”  What Jesus communicates is  at the heart of personhood in the absolute sense: that experience of being “from the Father” and “going to the Father.”  If you wish you can drop that Semitic metaphor of “father” and simply insert “Mystery.”  Who you are is embedded in the Mystery of the Ultimate Reality.  As Abhishiktananda well recognized, Jesus reveals the ground of our advaita.

Let us conclude with a poem from Thomas Merton, “The Fall”:

“There is no where in you a paradise that is no place and there

  You do not enter except without a story.

  To enter there is to become unnameable.

 Whoever is there is homeless for he has no door and no identity 

          with which to go out and to come in.

Whoever is nowhere is nobody, and therefore cannot exist except

           as unborn.

No disguise will avail him anything.

Such a one is neither lost nor found.

But he who has an address is lost.

They fall, they fall into apartments and are securely established!

They find themselves in streets.  They are licensed

 To proceed from place to place 

They now know their own names

They can name several friends and know

Their own telephones must some time ring.

If all telephones ring at once , if all names are shouted at once and

             all cars crash at one crossing:

If all cities explode and fly away in dust

Yet identities refuse to be lost.  There is a name and number for

                everyone.

There is a definite place for bodies, there are pigeon holes for 

                ashes:

Such security can business buy!

Who would dare to go nameless in such a secure universe?

Yet, to tell the truth, only the nameless are at home in it.

They bear with them in the center of nowhere the unborn flower

                 of nothing;

This is the paradise tree.  It must remain unseen until words end

                 and arguments are silent.”

 

Some Notes on Kashmir Shaivism

There are quite a few authentic, integral, deep spiritual traditions in our world.  Each with its own fascinating strengths; each with its own peculiar weaknesses.  We have come in human evolution and development to the point that none seem able to stand  by themselves without a very real diminishment.  All traditions do seem to really need each other in order to cover  those areas of human experience that are not sufficiently explored or even neglected in their own path.  Examples:  Merton’s comments in Asia on how the Tibetans had gone so much further in understanding our mind/consciousness in the spiritual path; and the Dalai Lama’s comment on how much he is impressed with Christianity’s focus on compassion and works of mercy.  

Kashmir Shaivism may well be one of the least known and least appreciated spiritual traditions.  It’s “home ground” is of course Kashmir, a beautiful area in the northwest of India.  With the Himalayas close by, with beautiful green valleys filled with lakes, with a mild climate, it was always an attractive place.  When the Brits controlled India, their top people would vacation in Kashmir or get away from the heat of the south and float on Dal Lake in a luxurious houseboats with servants.  More importantly, for centuries this area was extremely rich in religious traditions.  The Sufis were there; the Buddhists were there; and, yes, that particular form of Hinduism now known as Kashmir Saivism.  

The political situation that developed in the 20th century destroyed most of that.  Kashmir got caught in a violent tug-of-war struggle between Pakistan and India.  In part that is the responsibility of the Brits in the way they left India; in part it is of course more complicated than that.  The tragic thing is that this is only a part of that fierce animosity between certain elements in Islam and certain elements in Hinduism.  Today it is mostly populated by Islamic people, and adherents of Kashmir Saivism will largely be found elsewhere.

India is the home of an incredibly varied religious traditions.  To locate Kashmir Saivism we first note that it belongs in the nondualist camp of spiritualities.  India has been the home of 4 major nondualist traditions:  Madhyamika—basically the Buddhist foundation of all Mahayana paths including Zen and Tibetan Buddhism; Vijnanavada (sometimes known as “Yogachara”); Advaita Vedanta, especially Shankara’s interpretation of it; and finally Kashmir Saivism.  

To be frank about it, I myself am not really attracted by this mode of spirituality.  It obviously is a rich and deep tradition; it obviously still offers something significant to a goodly number of people, both the very educated and also average folks.  But as for myself even as I find a number of very interesting and intriguiging insights within Kashmir Saivism,  I am averse to its complexity; seems so needless to me—same holds for me in regard to Tibetan Buddhism.  If you want to get just a little taste of that complexity dip into one of these books:  Abhinavagupta’s Hermeneutics of the Absolute by Bettina Baumer or The Doctrine of Vibration by Mark S.G. Dyczkowski.  The complexity I am referring to is not primarily one of concepts or ideas—I always enjoy the challenge of understanding deep/difficult lines of thought. No, what I am referring to is a whole religious complex of symbol, ritual, practice, etc.  For one thing, I am simply not attracted by invitations to a panoply of complex meditation practices wherever they be found.  That simply could be just me.  After all, my native tradition of Catholicism can look very complex to an outsider, but being born and educated in it I navigate around that seeming needless complexity to get to the heart of it.   Almost impossible to do with a completely different tradition—unless, like Zen, it already points to that unspeakable simplicity at the heart of all traditions.  Here we can remind ourselves something that Merton pointed out in Asia:  when we get behind all the “complexity” of these various traditions, we find something profoundly and utterly simple which gets covered over by layer after layer of myth, ritual, concepts, even superstition and magic—how true this is of my Catholicism!

Bettina Baumer, whom I mentioned above, is both a world-class scholar of Kashmir Saivism and a devoted adherent.  She gave a talk at a gathering to honor the memory of Abhishiktananda in which she expressed the opinion that he was closer to Kashmir Saivism than to Advaita Vedanta (at least the dominant Shankara interpretation of it).  As Baumer explains it, Abhishiktananda was not really acquainted with explicit Kashmir Saivism, but his relating of his spiritual experience and his read of the Upanishads indicates that he had stumbled on the central teachings of this tradition and would have been more at home in it.   Perhaps, perhaps not.   Abhishiktananda did express his displeasure with Shankara’s treatment of the Upanishads and his teachings: “too much conceptualization.”  He preferred to deal with the Upanishads unfiltered; there he felt he was more in touch with his own nondual experience.  But we do have to consider this:  for Abhishiktananda the focal point and total symbol of what was India’s most valuable gift to western religious consciousness was wholly contained in the figure of the sannyasi.  Shankara himself was a sannyasi, and the whole Advaita Vedanta tradition elevated the figure of the sannyasi into a transcendent symbol.  This is not quite true of Kashmir Saivism.  It does not elevate that kind of external radical renunciation.   There is no “class distinction” between sannyasi and householder; all spiritual work is purely interior.  Yes, the true adherent will live simply, like the last great holy man of Kashmir, Lakshman Joo, but he will not be seen to engage in radical renunciation.  Yes, Lakshman Joo was a vegetarian, was celibate, dressed simply, but certainly lived more comfortably than the sannyasis Abhishiktananda admired.  Abhinavagupta, the great scholar-saint of ancient Kashmir Saivism, was a married man and raised 3 children.  And many of Lakshman Joo’s disciples are married with families.  It’s a different kind of path than the Upanishadic sannyasis.  Just my conjecture, because I have not read this anywhere, but with the mass movement of Islamic people into Kashmir about eight centuries ago, a lot of Sufis came there also.  These may have had a large influence on a lot of Kashmir Saivism because their mode of spirituality is very similar.

To follow up more on the above, one of Kashmir Saivism ‘s more intriguing and, to me, most attractive aspect is its radical nondualism.  By that I mean something special.  What I am referring to is the push of religious nondualism into relativizing or deconstructing all the dualisms people live by.  Consider this concrete example: the caste system, not as dominant in India as in the past, but still a strong influence on social and religious life in India.  The key adherents of Advaita Vedanta, belonging to the brahmin caste, have traditionally been zealous upholders of the caste system.  It appears that their staunch nondualism is only in regard to the Ultimate Reality, and there are no social consequences to that.  No so with Kashmir Saivism.  Consider these words by the holy man, Lakshman Joo as found on the website run by his followers :

“The fifth significant difference between Kashmir Śaivism and Vedānta concerns the question of who is fit to practice this monistic teaching. Vedānta holds that this teaching can only be practiced by “worthy people” such as brahmins with “good qualities.” In fact, Śaṁkarācārya holds that Vedānta is meant only for saṁyāsins1 and not others. From the Vedāntic point of view, women and other castes are not allowed to practice the Vedāntic system. This point of view, however, is not recognized by our Kashmir Śaivism. Kashmir Śaivism teaches that this monistic thought can be practiced by anyone, man or woman, without the restriction of caste, creed, or color. In fact, our Śaivism teaches us that this thought can be practiced more fruitfully by women than by men.

On this website there is also a full explanation of the difference between Kashmir Saivism and Advaita Vedanta:

https://www.lakshmanjooacademy.org/difference-kashmir-saivism-advaita-vedanta/

In the book previously mentioned, Bettina Baumer has this quote from Abhinavagupta:

“In Trika Sastras, this very activity almost without any curb is worship.  All things are available for the fulfilment of this worship.  The course of knowledge has been described in detail.  Regarding the castes—brahmanas, etc. – there is no fixed principle, for the caste distinction is artificial.  The specification that brahmanas alone are entitled for instruction can convince only the silly herd.”

And Bettina herself:

“This hierarchical sense of inferiority and superiority applies practically in the social realm to the caste system which has no place in Anuttara.  That this is not only a theoretical statement but has practical implications in Trika has been shown in the context of adhikara:  there Abhinavagupta ridicules the restrictions of Sastras to a particular, especially the brahmana caste.”

So…..very interesting…..   Just think of slavery in the Christian context.  Right from its origins.   Amazing to me how St. Paul missed the boat on this point badly, and got early Christianity orientated wrongly on this point, with a lot other implications.  Recall Paul’s argument:  he is thoroughly overwhelmed by the reality of the Risen Christ, and his theological elaboration of the implications is awesome, especially considering the background and culture of the Semitic mindset.  When he comes to this widespread social phenomenon of slavery, he points out that in the light of the Resurrection no one is really a “slave” anymore; there is no second—class citizenship in the kingdom of God.  Good enough, but then in a curious twist of logic he goes on to say that if you as a Christian are a slave owner, treat your slave like a brother in Christ.  Apparently there may be no slaves in the kingdom of God, but here it’s ok even for Christians.  If one failed to get that message, Paul makes it explicit:  Slaves, obey your masters.  And because of Paul’s blindness in this regard, Christianity was saddled with a muddled approach to slavery and other issues for over a thousand years.

Let me quote a few lines from one of Abhinavagupta’s key mystical writings as translated by Bettina Baumer:

Anuttarastika

From:  Eight Verses on the Unsurpassable

1. There is no need of spiritual progress,

     nor of contemplation, disputation or discussion,

     nor meditation, concentration nor even the effort of prayer.

     Please tell me clearly:  What is supreme Truth?

     Listen:  Neither renounce nor possess anything,

     share in the joy of the total Reality

     and be as you are!

2.  In reality no world of transmigration exists,

      so how can one talk about bondage?

      To try to liberate one free already

       Is futile, for he was never in bondage.

       All this just creates a delusion like that

        of the shadow of a ghost or a rope mistaken for a snake.

       So neither renounce nor possess anything.

       Enjoy yourself freely, resting in your self,

       just as you are!

4.   This bliss is not comparable to that which is experienced

       through riches or wine or even union with the beloved.

       The dawning of that Light is not to be compared

       with the light of a lamp or that of the sun or moon.

      The joy that is felt when one is freed from the burden

       of accumulated differences can only be compared

       to the relief felt while setting on the ground a heavy weight.

       The dawning of the Light is like finding a lost treasure:

       the state of universal non-duality.

Think of the words of Jesus in the Gospel: the treasure buried in the field, the light burden vs. the heavy burden which we carry, etc.  Think of the Sermon on the Mount … it really is only understandable from the standpoint of a nondual spiritual consciousness.  Otherwise we tend to dismiss it as “exaggerated,” or “simply a lofty unreachable goal in this life,” or “idealized ethics” or “symbolic,” or some other rationalization for not letting these words be a real map to our real life.  There’s so much more that could be said along these lines, but I will leave it at that.  Suffice it to say, that among all the teachings of Abhinavagpta that I read and (think) I understand, none is a problem to the heart of the Reality of the Christ.

Some interesting and (to me) appealing notions in Kashmir Saivism:

a.  Anuttara—“the Unsurpassable,” “the Absolute,” “that which has nothing beyond it,” etc.  Perhaps this is “the Father” of the Gospels; perhaps it is the Godhead of Meister Eckhart, etc.  

b.  anupaya— the “no means,” “no-way,” the highest of the four ways of liberation.   You’ll find this idea among the deepest of the Desert Fathers, Zen Masters, Sufis, etc.

c.  pratyabhijna— philosophy of recognition.  “Recognition” of who you really are is the key to all true spiritual paths, and so it is with Kashmir Saivism.  Read the New Testament in the light of this.   There is the way of “recognition”  vs. the way of “achieving” or “earning” or “working for” …..otherwise known as “salvation through works.”

Truly, the tradition of Kashmir Saivism is blessed with a beauty, a power, and a vision that we all can learn from!

Conversations With the Tradition

Recently, out of curiosity, I was perusing the internet pages of several conservative Catholic colleges.  A lot of it was standard academic language; but some of it was that depressing arrogance of the “Catholicism uber alles, Catholicism contra mundum” attitude.  No need to go over all that.  However, in at least one case I did find something I could relate to:  Thomas Aquinas College has built its whole education program on a Great Books foundation.  Now what they do with that good intention I am not sure.  But I want to move on to something else.  Soon after this I saw a story in the Washington Post about Howard University, one of the primary historic Black colleges.  It appears the university had decided to close its Classics Department, and a whole bunch of students, alumni, and friends of the school were expressing vigorous disagreement and protest with that decision.  Now I come to something very interesting…a remarkable op-ed piece in the Washington Post that lays out the reason why Howard was mistaken, but more importantly it points to a bit of wisdom that we all need in the modern world.  The piece was written by Cornell West and Jeremy Tate.  The latter gentleman I don’t know, but West is a famous Black intellectual who has been a strong supporter of Bernie Sanders, and in general an inspiration to read. 

 The title of the essay is “Howard University’s Removal of Classics is a Spiritual Catastrophe.”  Strong language but it gets stronger.  The essay begins:

“….one of America’s greatest Black institutions, Howard University, is diminishing the light of wisdom and truth that inspired Douglass, King and countless other freedom fighters. Amid a move for educational ‘prioritization,’ Howard University is dissolving its Classics Department. Tenured faculty will be dispersed to other departments, where their courses can still be taught. But the university has sent a disturbing message by abolishing the department.”

So, the authors point out that the classical tradition informed and aided the liberating vision and discourse of such figures as Frederick Douglas and Martin Luther King.  This is not too well known but even less well-known is that Black Panther leaders like Angela Davis and Huey Newton quoted figures like Socrates and Cicero.  But this line of argument is not yet getting at the heart of the matter.  The stakes are very high when you are diminishing the presence of the classical tradition in our public AND religious discourse.  Our authors, again:

“Academia’s continual campaign to disregard or neglect classics is a sign of spiritual decay, moral decline and a deep intellectual narrowness running amok in American culture. Those who commit this terrible act treat Western civilization as either irrelevant and not worthy of prioritization or as harmful and worthy only of condemnation.  Sadly, in our culture’s conception, the crimes of the West have become so central that it’s hard to keep track of the best of the West. We must be vigilant and draw the distinction between Western civilization and philosophy on the one hand, and Western crimes on the other. The crimes spring from certain philosophies and certain aspects of the civilization, not all of them.”

A good point but it’s not their best or most important point.  The essay continues:

“The Western canon is, more than anything, a conversation among great thinkers over generations that grows richer the more we add our own voices and the excellence of voices from Africa, Asia, Latin America and everywhere else in the world. We should never cancel voices in this conversation, whether that voice is Homer or students at Howard University. For this is no ordinary discussion. The Western canon is an extended dialogue among the crème de la crème of our civilization about the most fundamental questions. It is about asking “What kind of creatures are we?” no matter what context we find ourselves in. It is about living more intensely, more critically, more compassionately. It is about learning to attend to the things that matter and turning our attention away from what is superficial.  Howard University is not removing its classics department in isolation. This is the result of a massive failure across the nation in “schooling,” which is now nothing more than the acquisition of skills, the acquisition of labels and the acquisition of jargon. Schooling is not education. Education draws out the uniqueness of people to be all that they can be in the light of their irreducible singularity. It is the maturation and cultivation of spiritually intact and morally equipped human beings.”

Good points; very well put.  Needless to say Howard University pushed back on this critique but I am not going to get into that argument.  More interesting to me is the applicability of what West and Tate say to the realm of spirituality, theology, religion.  There are at least two different ways that it may apply.  The first is simply to look at one’s own tradition, Catholicism in my case.  There you will find a rich tradition of spirituality, even mysticism of high realization; but it is all encased in a very problematic history.  From some very dubious Biblical tropes to the quasi-mythological language of the early Church to the keen articulations of medieval figures, but limited in their horizon, all the way to our own insights, our own limitations, our own advances.  It is all a “conversation” of sorts, and this is a good way of approaching “the Tradition.”  Unfortunately, however, much too often the Tradition is seen  through the lens of the catechism:  “You have a question; we have the answer.”  The history within which this Tradition unfolds is also too often whitewashed, covered up, retold in a totally unreal way.  The weird, infantile, dysfunctional piety found in many corners of the Church is covered over with grand theological language.  The saints put on a miracle show, and the faithful obey, which is their place in the institution.  The Church’s handling of its dysfunctional and predatory priests and religious was colored by this attitude.  The bishops didn’t want to “scandalize” the “simple faith” of believers; and the “holiness” of the church, that image if you will, had to be impeccable and so propped up….at the expense of enormous injustice and falsehood.  And then  too often the language of our primary texts is left unexamined for what it is really saying; we are encouraged to rely on “simple faith” and “trust” the Church reading of them.  It’s amazing how much superficial religiosity, even false religiosity gets pedlled this way.

But what happens if we begin to see our Tradition as a conversation of a sort…between us and the key voices of our past.  No better example than Thomas Merton.  When he entered the Trappists in the mid 1940s, he was a sophisticated, well-educated young man who was also very intense in his spiritual search; but he was at the same time constrained and limited by the narrow horizons of the Catholicism and the monasticism of his time.  The Trappists that he entered after his conversion saw monastic life as something to “endure” rather than as an intense focus on union with God.  The point of it all was not “contemplative prayer” but continual penitential practices.  Yes, for the love of God, but still distorting the real meaning of the life.  Merton plunged into this program, but he also began a far-ranging examination of the Tradition and recovered the contemplative heart of his monasticism.  He was not the only one doing this among the Trappists, and so by the ‘60s the focus on their life had changed and a vigorous renewal began.  Needless to say, not everything in this renewal was positive or helpful, but the focus had definitely changed.  And the real agent of this change, for the positive elements in it, was an engagement with the Tradition, a re-reading of it, not for the purpose of mindlessly copying or accepting what was there—not looking for easy formulas, new rules, simple answers from the Tradition; on the contrary, learning how to question the Tradition for what was essential in it and what was “window dressing,” etc.  Learning how to get behind  the language to grasp the reality.  Merton’s writings and teachings on monasticism and contemplative prayer articulated in the ‘60s shows the result of this conversation.

But there is another conversation that also arises in this context and also that Merton was a big part of.  Merton discovered that to truly understand the depths of his own Tradition and to uncover “still buried treasure” in it,” he needed the help of the other great contemplative traditions of the world: primarily Sufism, Taoism, Zen, and Tibetan Buddhism.  This is quite remarkable, and is in fact a new element in our Tradition.  It was never conceived before that it would be a good, even a necessity to engage with these great traditions.  Not as “tourists,” certainly not as “missionaries” seeking converts; but as fellow spiritual pilgrims seeking to learn what treasures these brothers and sisters of ours have.  So there is this new conversation between traditions; a conversation that will enrich some, challenge some, bewilder some, scare some, perhaps even leading some to see their own Tradition in a completely new way.  If the classics helped empower key Black leaders, perhaps Lao Tzu, Milarepa, Han Shan, etc.  can do something for us pilgrims on this journey.

Clarity

Clarity is not often mentioned as a spiritual quality; certainly it is not listed as one of the “classic virtues.”  I would suggest, however, that clarity is not just a commendable characteristic of a person, but that it represents a critical and essential element of authentic spiritual depth.  I don’t mean to say that wherever we find clarity we find authentic spirituality in any explicit way; far from it.  Some people who exhibit intense clarity are not popularly recognized as “spiritual” or “religious.”  But the presence of clarity does indicate a dimension of holiness that may be unnamed (or named).  In any case we are all a bit of a mixture of elements, some of them not so good, some of them amazingly true and deep.  Clarity, wherever you find it, is to be valued.   Lets reflect a bit on this and look at some examples of some sharp clarity.

But first, what is “clarity”?  What do we mean by this term?  It has to do with seeing something in its reality, not overlaying it with our projections, not distorting it because of our disordered desires, fears, expectations, etc.  But even this is not enough.  After seeing something in its reality, there is the moment when we call it by its right name.  Clarity necessitates  this naming because clarity is not a private inner vision but a function of our nature as communal beings; and language, the correct use of language,  is a foundation of authentic community and an unconcealing of our fundamental communion.  (Think of that account in Genesis of Adam in Paradise naming all the animals created by God.  It is a key function of our humanity and shows our connection and responsibility to all other creatures.)  That’s one of the reasons, by the way, that a hermit who has lived in his solitude and silence, when it Is authentic, arrives at a prophetic kind of clarity and people may start coming to him for that clearness.  His gift is for the community. Paradoxically, the solitary one becomes the sacrament of communion.

Recently I reflected on the phenomenon of greed in our society.  I wrote about 8 or 9 pages, but my dear old friend, Lao Tzu, whom I first read 60 years ago in my teens, nails it sharply and succinctly in a few lines:

“With Tao under heaven

          Stray horses fertilize the fields.

Without Tao under heaven

          Warhorses are bred at the frontier.

There is no greater calamity

           Than not knowing what is enough.

There is no greater fault

            Than desire for success.

            Therefore,

Knowing that enough is enough,

             Is always

                         Enough.”

                                          (Addiss and Lombardo translation)

Simple words that conceal a depth beyond “clarity.”  Don’t think that clarity means easy to grasp!

Another wise figure from ancient China was Confucius. Mostly we have stereotypes and caricatures of this figure, and we have little sense of what he actually taught.  Even later Chinese thought distorted his vision.   He placed a high value on clarity.  In fact he saw it as the necessary foundation of a sane, orderly, peaceful society.  Two quotes:

“The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper name ~ 

In the  Analects, a disciple asked Confucius the right principle of government, and in reply Confucius said:

“The one thing needed first is the rectification of names.”

In our world of fake news, propaganda, advertising, so much selling of products, ideas, feelings, images, so much manipulation and obfuscation, this “calling things by their right name” sounds rather revolutionary!

Speaking of which, lack of clarity does not just lead to “difficult times.”  More often than not it leads to situations of life and death.  Consider the misleading and false language that was used to justify both the Vietnam War and the Iraq War.  Consider the obfuscations around our critical issue of gun violence.  Or even the poverty of people; the ability to make a living wage.  At the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and the modern financial system there were very few who saw clearly and spoke clearly what was happening to common people.  Certainly not from the leaders of the times, neither political leaders nor financial leaders.  You have to go to an outsider, a revolutionary figure like Friedrich Engels, one of the founding fathers of communist theory.

He observed the conditions of working people in England and named it “social murder.”  Engels wrote in one of the most important works of social history, The Conditions of the Working Class in England, that this “social murder” was built into the economic system. The ruling elites, Engels wrote, those that hold “social and political control,” were aware that the harsh working and living conditions during the industrial revolution doomed workers to “an early and unnatural death.  Here is an excerpt:

“When one individual inflicts bodily injury upon another such that death results, we call the deed manslaughter; when the assailant knew in advance that the injury would be fatal, we call his deed murder. But when society places hundreds of proletarians in such a position that they inevitably meet a too early and an unnatural death, one which is quite as much a death by violence as that by the sword or bullet; when it deprives thousands of the necessaries of life, places them under conditions in which they cannot live — forces them, through the strong arm of the law, to remain in such conditions until that death ensues which is the inevitable consequence — knows that these thousands of victims must perish, and yet permits these conditions to remain, its deed is murder just as surely as the deed of the single individual; disguised, malicious murder, murder against which none can defend himself, which does not seem what it is, because no man sees the murderer, because the death of the victim seems a natural one, since the offence is more one of omission than of commission. But murder it remains.

Interesting to note that at this same time in the U.S., slavery was flourishing and here too neither religious, nor political, nor business leaders named the monstrosity of this practice.  It was the few outsiders, the revolutionaries,  the abolitionists, who spoke clearly and eventually pierced the conscience of the majority of the population.  

As a bit of a diversion but along the same line consider this:  recently there was a story in the NY Times and elsewhere about the Jesuits in the U.S.  They made the news because they pledged millions to certain Black people as reparations.  It turns out that in the pre-Civil War era the Jesuits were slave owners.  Yes, that is right!  And when they founded Georgetown University in Washington, at a certain point needing money for expansion, sold over 200 slaves in the general slave market….kind of hard to believe that, isn’t it?  Whatever Black families existed there were torn apart.  Many ended up in especially brutal plantation labor.  So, today’s Jesuits look like they are trying to make up for that travesty and sham of religious life by tracking down as many contemporary people whose forebears were these slaves and “returning” that money a thousand fold.  Sounds like a step in the right direction, right?  However, even this is mired in obfuscation.  The Jesuits are not digging into their own pockets to pay these reparations; they are going to “raise” this money and pass it on to the forebears.  Something similar went on when they had to pay millions to the many victims of sexual abuse by Jesuits.  For someone who was educated by the Jesuits like myself, this is a sad, sad story.  And of course in none of my history classes in the ‘60s did I ever hear of the Church’s and religious orders’ involvement in slavery.  Lack of clarity was always endemic to these institutions!  But here I just want to emphasize a bigger, much bigger point.  What kind of blindness and deafness are you afflicted with, how thick a fog, how dark is the darkness in which you find yourself when you hold the Gospel of Jesus Christ in one hand and the lives of slaves in the other.  “Lack of clarity” is way too mild to describe this situation.

 

 Thomas Merton often hit on the theme of clarity.  Both in essay and in poetry (the late stuff), he lamented  the falseness and manipulation of our language environment and how it facilitated our self-deception.  But here I want to quote something more important…his emphasis on clarity in his own spiritual experience, how clarity was a key characteristic of a deep spiritual experience that he had in Asia.  I refer to that famous scene at Polonnaruwa depicted in the Asian Journal:

“I am able to approach the Buddhas barefoot and undisturbed, my feet in wet grass, wet sand.  Then the silence of the extraordinary faces.  The great smiles.  Huge and yet subtle.  Filled with every possibility, questioning nothing, knowing everything, rejecting nothing, the peace not of emotional resignation but of Madhyamika, of sunyata, that has seen through every question without trying to discredit anyone or anything—without refutation—without establishing some other argument….  I was knocked over with a rush of relief and thankfulness at the obvious clarity of the figures, the clarity and fluidity of shape and line, the design of the monumental bodies composed into the rock shape and landscape….  Looking at these figures I was suddenly, almost forcibly, jerked clean out of the habitual, half-tied, vision of things, and an inner clearness, clarity, as if exploding from the rocks themselves, became evident and obvious. “ 

You would think that religion would be a welcome space for clarity.  Unfortunately that is far from true in most cases.  Whether it be in the case of the personal spiritual journey, or, whether it be in the case of a religious institution, lack of clarity can have devastating effects.  In Christianity, we can almost have a whole catalog of ills that arise from lack of clarity: religious orders devolve, monasteries become decadent, individuals turn the spiritual life into trivial pursuits, ritual begins to encourage superstition and magic, preaching becomes massaging people for funds, power and wealth get dressed in religious garb, etc., etc.  But also fortunately we do have a number of examples of clarity in all the major traditions, which can help us keep our focus even when our institutional religious life gets lost in a fog of unreality.

If you go to some of my friends among the Desert Fathers, you will get razor-sharp clarity.  Someone from a different time and different tradition is Milarepa, the profound hermit of Tibetan Buddhism.  For someone who is not from this tradition, Milarepa is hard to appreciate, especially since he is such a radical hermit, so focused on that.  But he is a most interesting and striking figure also for his clarity about the spiritual life (and just think he was not even formally a monk or ever lived in a monastery!).  

Milarepa:

“Deep in the wild mountains, is a strange marketplace, where you can trade the hassle and noise of everyday life, for eternal Light.” 

“I have no desire for wealth or possessions, and so I have nothing. I do not experience the initial suffering of having to accumulate possessions, the intermediate suffering of having to guard and keep up possessions, nor the final suffering of losing the possessions.” 

“My religion is not deceiving myself.” “I realize that even though I should possess the whole world, at my death I should have to give up everything; and so it will confer happiness in this and the next life if I give up everything now. I am thus pursuing a life which is quite opposite to that followed by the people.”

“Maintain the state of undistractedness, and distractions will fly away. Dwell alone, and you shall find the Friend. Take the lowest place, and you shall reach the highest. Hasten slowly, and you shall soon arrive. Renounce all worldly goals, and you shall reach the highest Goal. If you follow this unfrequented path, you will find the shortest way. If you realize Sunyata (the absolute Emptiness), compassion will arise within your hearts; and when you lose all differentiation between yourself and others, then you will be fit to serve others.”

Then there’s another old friend from recent times:  Abhishiktananda.  A prophetic voice that now seems “out of fashion”—his writings seem to be vanishing.  I heard from someone that even in a theological library in India his books are covered by dust, very little touched.  But how often you get jewels of clarity from him…in deceptively simple words yet leading into profound depths:

“There is no part of our life in which we can escape the mystery of God which fills our whole being….”

“Piety is perhaps the most subtle and also the surest way for the ego to escape pursuit and re-establish its status and dignity.”

Yes, all of the above is simple language, seemingly simple ideas, but their clarity conveys unspeakable depths.  In the spiritual life clarity and Mystery are the two sides of the same coin.  You don’t need an advanced degree to grasp this; you need something else…..please read Lao Tzu and the Sermon on the Mount for some direction!

Here’s another example from the Sufi tradition:

Shaikh Ahmad Al-Ahawi

“It is not a question of knowing God when the veil be lifted  but of knowing Him in the veil itself.”

A saying like this is like the proverbial sword that cuts “false religion”  from “true religion.”

And here’s a most subtle example of spiritual clarity…I refer to another old friend whom I started reading in my teens through the translations of Ezra Pound, the ancient Chinese poet Li Bai (sometimes known as Li Po), one of China’s greatest poets.  A mystic of sorts with a poetic sensibility practically unmatched by anyone in the West, but also a failure in almost everything else he did.  His clarity of vision is so subtle you can mistake it for banal simplicity, especially in translation.  Here’s an example: 

“Ask me

  Why I stay

  On Green Mountain?

  I smile

  And do not answer,

  My heart is at ease.

  Peach blossoms

  On flowing water

  Slip away

  Into the distance—

  This is another world

  Which is not of men.

(translated by Greg Whincup)

But let me turn now to the “social world” once more, the world that we all inhabit.  The role of clarity or lack of clarity therein is quite an important topic and was touched on by Merton quite a few times in the ‘60s.  You might assume that spiritual clarity is more important and should have priority of place in our concerns; but really it’s not that simple.  One might think that spiritual clarity leads to social clarity and lack of clarity in the former infects the latter with the same corruption of vision.  But the situation might be more like the proverbial “chicken and egg” dilemma…which comes first?  I think it can be shown that the lack of clarity, that the downright obfuscation and corruption of our communal communication about our everyday lives really does have a serious detrimental effect on our ability to clearly express what is important to our spiritual vision.  In any case, here is a remarkable example of remarkable clarity from a young lady who goes by the name of Walking Womad.  She has been a global hiker and a blogger writing about her hikes on some of the greatest trails in the world, including the ones in my beloved Sierras.  She also lives a radically simple lifestyle.  I haven’t seen anything recent from her so I hope she is ok, but I found this sharp quote from her from a few years ago:

“Yesterday I bought a women’s magazine. I hadn’t bought one in years. While standing in line to pay my stuff I pictured myself on the couch, sipping on a glass of white wine and reading something without brains. It sounded like a good plan to me. However that thought only lasted till I opened the magazine and noticed the word “more” being used a lot. An awful lot. “Be more human” (Reebok ad), “Want it more” (Asics); over all “more” seemed to be the way to go.

And I heard myself thinking “What the fuck?” Wearing tight sexy clothes while doing a crazy impossible yoga pose is making me more human??? And what would happen if I wanted it more? What is “it” anyway? Being fit? Having a six-pack? Being better than the rest? Or being someone else?

Cause what “more” is really saying, is that right now “I am not enough”. Not good enough the way I am. Not hot enough. Not cool enough. Not beautiful enough. Not happy enough. Not tough enough. Not chilled enough! Not! enough! I need to be more! Apparently I am lacking something. Maybe there’s a hole somewhere in my body, a space full of emptiness that makes me “not enough”, waiting and begging to be filled with “more”?

So then I went on to check my body, and I had a little talk with my heart and of course my soul had its say too, and even though we looked under the nail of both of my small toes and in that hidden lower left corner of my heart, o and also behind a strange curl in my brain, we just couldn’t find the hole.

My body was like “I never heard of that hole anyway!”; and my heart said  “Girl relax, that magazine is fooling you!” and then my soul shouted into my ear real loud (damn it almost hurt): “Fuck them!!!” Ya my soul has always been a bit of a rebel, but I like it that way.

Even when you have a look at the other side of the scale, at the world of “less and mindfulness and simplify your life” you will bump into the popular “Less is more”, mostly written in a curly font on a what seems to be recycled paper.
So now less is more too? What???
And then they want you to go buy a stone that will clean your karma.
“Fuck them!”… Ah here goes my soul again. Sorry.

Fact is: Less or more or more or less are words that wanna make me believe I need to change something, that I have a hole that needs to be filled and that the writer of those words has the ultimate solution for the emptiness, for the “not enough”. Sexy yoga clothes that make my muscles (or rather not-muscles) shine through will make me more human. “Hell I better go and buy those clothes then cause I feel a little like not enough human today!” Eh!? Yeah right!

The thing is: I am no more or less. I AM ME. I am enough. More than enough… No wait… “Just Enough” will do!
See… that “more” is everywhere, creeping up on you inbetween sentences and blinks of an eye and just when you think you’ve had enough of the shit.
I don’t need to have more of this, or be less of that. I’m fine with being me. Just me. Human. Cause there’s no such thing as “more human”. Yoga won’t save my soul, nor will anything that money can buy. It doesn’t need to be saved. Even if it says “fuck” a lot.

So while I was sipping white wine and I was looking through that magazine and I searched for holes in the lower left corner of my heart ánd I almost had to put in earplugs because of my soul screaming so loud, I decided that the only things that mattered were being happy with who I am, being grateful for what I have, and loving my wild cursing soul.”

  Merton could not have said it better OR clearer!

Greed is Good

Recall that old Catholic list of the “Seven Deadly Sins”:  pride, greed, wrath, envy, lust, gluttony, and sloth.  This list actually goes back to the writings of Evagrius and Cassian, and then it became kind of institutionalized in ecclesial thought and practice.  Originally it was just meant to organize and categorize the various drives in the human heart that plague us, and not only drag us down spiritually but even undermine our very humanity.  The list is not arbitrarily arranged;  the “worst” sin is listed first and then the others in order.  It is interesting that greed is considered so potent in its evil dynamics.  But none of the classic authors was able to map out the full play of greed in the human reality, or even see how it can be lurking disguised in what seems like acceptable social dynamics.  But one thing for sure, when they did smell the reality, they called it for what it was: evil.

The famous words in the title above were spoken by fictional character Gordon Geckko in the 1987 Oliver Stone movie Wall Street.  Although the story is fictional, it very much reflected the Wall Street realities of the ‘80s.  But if you look deeper perhaps you will see the more universal underlying theme of the story: how greed infects not only the economic and social fabric of our society but also the very depths of the human heart.  If you think that story is dated, “so ‘80s,” or simply reflecting an anamoly, try these stories, of more recent vintage and reflecting more recent situations: Margin Call, Boiler Room, The Wolf of Wall Street, Barbarians at the Gates, The Big Short, and a number of others.  

Now, while greed becomes clearly manifest in the economic sectors of our society, it is a much more prevalent condition of our humanity. The vision articulated by Gecko is that greed is a driving force in human evolution—“it’s what makes us tick.”  It’s what makes us move “forward,” whatever that means.  It is who we are at our best.  Here we have gone a long way from our ancient ancestors!

Consider the following actual occurrence:  a group of mountain climbers with their Sherpa helpers approached a Buddhist lama for a blessing.  This is a usual practice for an expedition trying to summit one of the Himalayan peaks—the Sherpas will not climb without that blessing.  This lama surprised them with these words:  Climbing is a form of greed. Not at all obvious how that is so, but these  words would have been well understood by our ancient Desert Fathers—the lama saw something in what was motivating them. 

 This points us to a much bigger reflection on “greed” and its impact on our humanity.  But for now let us stick to the more visible economic manifestations.  Let’s take a look at two terms:  “accumulation of wealth,” and “the market.”  The accumulation of wealth is widely considered and assumed to be an unquestionable good, the so-called “American Dream.”  To some it seems that the accumulation of wealth is the whole point of life; something in tune with the great Aristotelian and classical axiom: every human being pursues his/her good.   So if one slips in the idea that wealth is a true good in itself (so therefore “more” is “better”), then presto, the accumulation of wealth, more and more, greed,  is a natural dynamic that fulfills one’s humanity.  And the market (capitalism really) facilitates that.  One cannot overstate how much this is the modern global vision, especially in the modern West.  

But greed runs against another current in the human community: the seeking of the common good—a central concept, by the way in Catholic Social Thought.  When we seek the common good, we seek the well-being, the enhancement of all in the community, not just our own.  And if we push this to the Buddhist vision, we will be seeking the good of all creatures, all beings.  The community we belong to is quite large!  Of course we do seek our own good also, but if we have a clear vision of who we are and what this includes, this seeking will never be simply for us as isolated individuals.  Our interdependence and interrelatedness means that our “wealth” is never simply “ours.”  In modern social life, especially in the U.S.,  these two contrasting currents work against each other and the result is incoherence and dysfunctionality and its effects are increasing and becoming more apparent.

Let’s consider some concrete cases.

Let’s start with the recent Texas catastrophe.  Many suffered from the extreme weather, but the worst was to come: power outages and failed water supplies.  This especially affected poor and middleclass folk.  But some well-to-do people did quite well.  Note the story below:

https://truthout.org/articles/billionaire-dallas-cowboys-owner-and-oil-man-cashes-in-on-texas-blackout-crisis/

Texas is one of this country’s most deregulated states in regard to energy.  The Republicans who have run the state for decades are the “apostles of deregulation”—meaning they don’t want any government agency, especially 

“them socialist bureaucrats in Washington” to limit their ability to make money on energy.  But that’s now how deregulation is presented—they will tell you that everyone will benefit from the competition among many providers and in regulation, the government sets limits on who can and can’t be an energy provider and how much they can charge.  They will tell you that prices under that system will be artificially high; but the “free market” would correct that.  And this same argument is pulled out for other sectors of the economy.  It has a slight grain of truth in it, that’s why it’s so seductive; but it is also seriously flawed.   But my main point is that in that word “deregulation” you will find deeply concealed the pure reality of greed.  It is the American way, these folks will tell you, the “freedom” to make as much money as possible.  The market allows you to charge as much as “the market will bear,” so they say—meaning you try to get as much as you can from the buyer.  Getting back to the Texas situation, Paul Krugman analyzed in the NY Times how things went wrong in Texas:

https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/22/opinion/texas-electricity-storm.html?action=click&module=Opinion&pgtype=Homepage

And even the Wall Street Journal pointed out that Texas electric bills were $28 billion higher since 2004 because of deregulation.

https://www.wsj.com/articles/texas-electric-bills-were-28-billion-higher-under-deregulation-11614162780?mod=hp_lead_pos7 

And then this story appeared in the Washington Post:  (This is just the beginning of the story)

As Texans went without heat, light or water, some companies scored a big payday

Windfall profits are likely to total billions of dollars

By 

Will Englund and 

Neena Satija Feb. 27, 2021 at 5:00 a.m. PST

“As millions of Texans went days without heat, light or water, as store shelves were emptied, as deaths blamed on the cold began to add up, Texas’ frenzied and deregulated electricity market opened the door for some companies to reap windfalls that may mount into the billions of dollars.

The nation’s most deregulated energy economy was supposed to be a win for consumers and for energy companies nimble enough to do business in a bustling, cacophonous market. But the cold snap — rare but by no means unprecedented — shattered it last week, plunging consumers into misery and leaving a badly prepared and dislocated energy sector in pieces.

“This is the classic definition of market failure,” said Aneesh Prabhu, an analyst with S&P.

Wholesale prices for electricity spiked 300-fold, and for natural gas almost as much, and when supplies dwindled firms that had some of either commodity to sell were in line for tremendous short-term profits. But other companies are looking at stupendous losses.”

This is sometimes called “economic Darwinism”:  the survival of the fittest, never mind the human toll that takes.

But this is merely scratching the surface of the problem.  Every sector of our social life is affected by our legitimizing of greed through our economic philosophy.  Consider the public myopia that seems to prefer a “healthcare-for-profit” system.   A society that values the common good would not treat healthcare as a commodity to “sell” in order to increase wealth.  Seems there is almost nothing in our society that can’t be commodified.  Even higher education—in Germany it’s all free for everyone, and in many other countries it’s dirt cheap.   Of course the liberal contingent of our country softens or 

disguises the roughness and toll of this mad dash for profits through various mechanisms.  But most Democrats and all Republicans refuse to leave this “for-profit” approach to healthcare where costs are going up every year.  So we got Obamacare and now Biden has his own adjustments.  These merely try to cushion the toll this approach takes rather than unmasking the hard reality and dismantling it.  Take a look at the story below.

https://truthout.org/articles/bidens-health-plan-shifts-even-more-public-dollars-into-private-hands/

Another, more radical, proposal that few seem to appreciate is a universal basic income.  It means that every person would get a certain amount from the government once they are 21.  Like about a $1000 a month.  Several European countries are experimenting with this idea.  The big outcry against this and the other common good proposals is the rant:  Who Will Pay for THIS?  Indeed.  If something is truly an important element of the common good, then in fact we all should share in paying for it.  This is called taxation.  The reason this won’t work in the U.S. is that we have a tax structure that favors and rewards greed.  Not too long ago the billionaire Warren Buffet said there’s something wrong when his secretary pays more in taxes than he does.  The fact is that the top tax rate is only 34%  and the fact is that no wealthy person (or corporation) pays 

even close to that because of all kinds of legal loopholes and deductions built into it to protect wealth (by comparison the Scandinavian countries take a much bigger chunk with no loopholes).  

All Republicans and many Democrats (the so-called “moderates”) are proponents of “lower taxes.”  A large part of the population has been brainwashed into believing this myth that lower taxes will enhance economic activity and benefit all.  Very recently there was a massive study released which, not surprisingly, has not been widely discussed.  It debunks this myth thoroughly, and unmasks this right-wing gospel of wealth accumulation as a path to a community’s well-being.  It merely leads to a greater and greater economic inequality.  The links to various version of this story are  below:

https://www.lse.ac.uk/News/Latest-news-from-LSE/2020/L-December/Tax-cuts-for-the-rich

https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2020/12/23/tax-cuts-rich-trickle-down/

https://www.businessinsider.com/tax-cuts-rich-trickle-down-income-inequality-study-2020-12

https://www.latimes.com/business/story/2021-02-05/tax-cuts-for-rich-dont-trickle-down

https://www.cnbc.com/2021/02/19/degrowth-pushing-social-wellbeing-and-climate-over-economic-growth.html

How bad can this greed get?  Take a look at this story:

https://www.cnbc.com/2021/02/22/-25-highest-paid-hedge-fund-managers-earned-record-setting-32-billion-in-2020.html

The fact is that while the majority of people suffered to varying degrees during the pandemic, the top 1% did quite well.  After the 2017 tax cut, the top 400 earners in the country paid a tax rate lower than the working class.  We have basically evolved into a plutocracy, rule by the wealthy….the greedy.

The reason this “gospel” has held sway over our public thinking is a sinister combination of problems.  The general populace has been brainwashed into seeing this mechanism of greed as an integral part of the “American Dream,”  “what being free means,”etc.  If someone running for office proposed the raising of taxes, even if it’s only for the higher income folk, they will immediately be labeled as “radical socialists,”  “radical leftists,” even communists, etc.  Their chances of getting elected are slim to none; that’s why so many who do sense the problem settle for these half-baked solutions that simply ameliorate a raw naked push to put greed at the heart of our communal lives.  And we see so many people resist fighting climate change because it infringes on what is perceived as a God-given right to make as much money as possible.   No politician dare ask people to make some sacrifices to save the planet.  So we have to settle on inadequate measures that allow people to make money in fighting climate change….that’s the only way to get many of the corporations to support fighting climate change.

But, as I said previously, there are countercurrents in our social and economic lives that reveals what we could really be like.  Back again to Texas and this example:  a supermarket of shoppers, not for luxury items but for food, and suddenly the power goes out.  I was once in such a situation as a shopper myself, and we all had to leave our baskets in place and walk out of the building.  No one could pay for anything, so everything had to stay in place.  Well, this store handled it differently.  They let everyone out with the food supplies they needed without having to pay.  They simply said, “Have a nice day!”  Here is the story:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/2021/02/19/texas-heb-lost-power/

This is only one example of probably very many acts of sacrifice, of sharing, of focusing on something more than one’s own “wealth.”

Recall Dr. Jonas Salk, the doctor who invented and developed the polio vaccine, the scourge of the early ‘50s.  He could have patented this vaccine and made millions, but he refused.  He saw it as an important contribution to the common good of all humanity, not a profit making thing.

Then, on a bigger scale, there is an alternative vision and a movement developing globally—because the whole planet is at stake due to climate change—which says that there actually is a different way of being a flourishing society than by enabling raw greed.  There was a story about this on CNBC:

https://www.cnbc.com/2021/02/19/degrowth-pushing-social-wellbeing-and-climate-over-economic-growth.html

This Degrowth movement has a strong voice in this website from Germany (in English):

https://www.degrowth.info/en/contact-en/

This is their answer to what is Degrowth:

“Degrowth is an idea that critiques the global capitalist system which pursues growth at all costs, causing human exploitation and environmental destruction. The degrowth movement of activists and researchers advocates for societies that prioritize social and ecological well-being instead of corporate profits, over-production and excess consumption. This requires radical redistribution, reduction in the material size of the global economy, and a shift in common values towards care, solidarity and autonomy. Degrowth means transforming societies to ensure environmental justice and a good life for all within planetary boundaries.”

And I would like to conclude with one of my favorite people on the internet: Walking Womad.  She is a young lady who truly has taken “the road less traveled.”  She has hiked many of the great trails around the world, but it’s her actual everyday life that lifts my spirits.  Here is the link to her website:

https://walkingwomad.com/about-2/#content-wrapper

And here is a very apt self-description:

“In normal (not sure what that means!?) life I studied Ancient Near Eastern Languages and Archaeology (Assyriology to be exact… Yes I am a freak!) and Social Work with specializations in Animal Assisted Therapy (with llamas and alpacas), Public Health and Outdoor- and Wilderness Education. My partner Dan and I run a wilderness school, where we teach and offer wilderness-, outdoor- and ancestral skills, nature connection and rites of passage. We live in a tiny cabin in the middle of the woods and fields. No running water, no electricity, no bathroom, instead we get fresh air, meet wild animals and hear the song of the wind in the pine trees.”

And of course there are numerous small monastic-type of communities and quiet people who are experimenting with a more responsible stewardship over the earth.  Our larger society, however, relies too much on a lie and that does not bode well for the future.

Dualism / Nondualism: Perhaps a Lenten Journey

These are multivalent terms, and so one has to be careful in their interpretation and in their use.  Basically they are philosophical terms that appear in various contexts that shades their meaning in one way or another.  For example, “dualities” appear in advanced mathematical analysis, and this yields some complex mathematical notions.  Also “dualism” is a common notion in psychology and in the science of human structure:  brain, mind….do these words refer to “2” separate entities or are they one and the same?  Is “mind” reducible to the biology and chemistry of the brain (nondualistic materialism), or is mind (and consciousness) something non-material that uses the brain like you use the computer.  Or, to put it even more radically, are you as a “person” reducible to the biology and chemistry of the body, or is there something more which we traditionally have called “the soul”?  This has been debated for a long time!  From Plato, the ultimate Western dualist, to many modern scientists who are “nondualists” in that matter is all there is, you can see that these terms can be applied in quite a few different contexts and with some very different consequences.  As far as science is concerned, I am definitely a dualist: there is more to reality than just matter.  But as regards spirituality, I am definitely on the nondualism side of the ledger.  And this is something I would like to explore a bit.  Nondualism itself has various shades of meaning, and perhaps different interpretations.  Many westerners are scared away from it because of that pop caricature of nondualism as a drop of rain vanishing in the “oneness” of the ocean.  Therefore they do not seek out any traces of nondualism within Christianity because…well, isn’t Christianity totally dualistic.  I suggest that this is a sadly and terribly wrong notion.

All the great religious traditions have their own approach to this matter, and interpret “dualism/nondualism” in their own particular way.  What you have to be careful about is skipping from the language of one tradition to another and thinking you are referring to the same reality in the same way.  It’s not that simple.  

Consider Hinduism.  It seems to cover all bases.  Whatever form of dualism/nondualism you want, it will provide!  The range of possibilities extends from a strict dualism that matches anything in the West; to a modified dualism (or modified nondualism if you wish), with its own treasure of bhakti, devotional practice that seems very close to Christian mysticism and the Sufis of Islam; to, finally, the total, radical nondualism of Advaita Vedanta, which in its turn comes in several types: from the austere mode of Shankara, to the complex tantric Kasmir Saivism.

Now Buddhism presents a different approach.  We are no longer concerned about relating to an Ultimate Reality.  The focus is on a kind of liberation from a “wrong view” of all reality, including our own self-understanding.  The liberation, or “enlightenment” is a kind of journey from living dualistically to a way of being that is truly nondualistic.  We awaken from this “dream” of seeing ourselves as this isolated individual self that stands in opposition to all other selves and the whole environment.  We discover an awareness of our intrinsic interrelatedness.  But here too there are variants, from Tibetan Buddhism to Chinese Zen to Theravada Buddhism and so on, each with its own nuances.

When we come to the great Western Traditions—Christianity, Islam, and Judaism—we encounter a very determined dualism.  Especially in Orthodox Judaism and orthodox Islam, the reality of God as the Wholly Other is emphatically asserted and all praxis revolves around that realization.  Christianity “softens” this dualism in the Mystery of the Incarnation, where the Wholly Otherness of the Divine enters the human reality.  Jesus is fully human and fully the Absolute Wholly Other we call God.  Traditional doctrine teaches this.  In itself it is a type of dualism, but what does that mean?   For sure this is not just a conceptual game of convenience to attribute two  fundamentally different terms to the same person.  These words refer to two different realities, not just concepts; but traditional doctrine also says that here we have reached the limits of what rational thought can do in grasping this Mystery.  True enough.  But we just slid by another very critical part of this doctrine:  Jesus is not some schizophrenic, “split personality;” not somebody divided up into two centers of consciousness; in other words he is ONE person, not two—this is traditional doctrine.  So the dualism of the “two” natures is transcended in the one person.  This points us in the right direction of discovering a very real Christian nondualism within a very dominant dualistic matrix of devotions, theology, self-understanding, living praxis, and ritual.  God is the reality you behold, you pray to, you obey, you seek, you worship, etc., etc.   Most believers never get past this awareness, but there is a deep mystical tradition within traditional, orthodox Christianity (as opposed to some off-beat variants that I am not referring to).  Christian mysticism has always been in a kind of tense relationship to traditional theology and authority.  On a conceptual level there is no way of reconciling these two tracks, but Christian mysticism simply uses the traditional language but pushes its meaning to a much deeper level, discovering its own form of nondualism;  and at the level of lived  religious experience there is simply no comparison.  Christian mysticism, then, does seem reasonably successful in finding its own nondualism while immersed in a totally dualistic religious paradigm.  The only other example of such that I can think of is the Sufi tradition within Islam.

But now I am thinking of Wordsworth’s poem, “Intimations of Immortality,” and I realize that what I am really looking for is not so much crumbs from the theological table that might suggest a form of nondualism, but more like the intimations of nondualism in the whole praxis of the faith, not just mysticism.  Like I said, the writings from the authentic mystical tradition of Christianity, both East and West, has a lot to offer to these “intimations of nondualism.”  Especially the Eastern tradition with its emphasis on “theosis” or divinization, participation in the Divine Life, rather than the Western emphasis on morality and “being saved from sin.”  But let us push ahead to what seems most common, at least in Catholicism, the practice of the celebration of the Eucharist, the Mass.  At first glance this practice looks like a true manifestation of the dualism of Christianity.  But look deeper this Lent.  There’s a reason Abhishiktananda was keen on celebrating the Eucharist even after his deep realization of Advaita!  Don’t get distracted or diverted by an approach to the Eucharist that I call “messaging.”  The celebration of the Eucharist becomes a series of messages.  Even worse is the “thinging” of the Eucharist, which in various ways turns the Eucharist into a thing which we “have.”  Now I do not mean to disparage anyone’s simple faith, practices, or understanding.  It’s just that wherever we are in our faith journey, whatever our state, we are always and everywhere at the gate of something infinitely deeper, and this is so true when we participate in the Eucharist.  But we do need to awaken to it.  Perhaps this is the real point of Lent, the true meaning of “conversion,” that awakening.   Once we realize that, we can freely participate in all traditional practices without anything limiting our vision; astonishingly enough, each practice is truly the “gateless gate” to our own version of Tat tvam asi.  Each practice is not for “gaining merit,” (there is nothing to gain really), not for “pleasing God,” or worshipping God, whatever that means, not for fulfilling an obligation, etc.; but each practice becomes simply a manifest, a theophany of the Divine Life.  It is the Christian “Namaste” to all of Reality.

Ponder also the simple words of the Gospel of John, which are also the most profound words written by any human being.  Yes, at first sight, the focus seems to be on Jesus Christ as the Other, the Wholly Different if you will, the object of our worship, etc.   But without negating any of this, we still need what the professional literary people call the “hermeneutical key” to reading  these simple but unfathomable words of the Gospel.  The hermeneutical key is the interpretive lens through which you understand the Gospel as a whole, and in the case of John you could almost miss this key because it comes to us in very common language:  door, gate, light, bread, way, etc.  You enter by a gate; you see by the light; you live by bread; you walk on a certain way.  (And ponder here Merton’s beautiful reflection on Jesus as the door in the Asian Journal.  It gives you a way to approach these words that uncovers the intimations of nondualism deep within them.)  

Here we begin to find Jesus not so much as the object of our attention, but as one through whom and in whom we exist and live and are connected to all that is Real (a Pauline thought also).  Now we begin to have true intimations of nondualism.  But the basic Christian focus on Jesus is not mistaken.  If you want to see what “living nondualism” is all about, just look at the life of Jesus, the person of Jesus and his teaching.  (Of course you might want to take account of the Semitic accent of the Gospel language; after all it is a language based in a certain cultural matrix.)  It is not some abstract theology or philosophy that is presented.  And from that contemplative gaze at the person of Jesus to our own “Tat tvam asi” THERE IS A BRIDGE, but I cannot tell you what it is because it is your own absolutely unique inner life manifesting the Divine Reality.   Something to ponder for Lent!

Science

There is a need to reflect on this reality of science in all categories of society and human activity:  in every culture,  in classrooms, in politics, in business, in everyday life, and, yes even and especially in religion and the spiritual path.  There is a need to reflect on what this reality is and what it isn’t.  I am not going to do that here, but I am just pondering how and why there is an urgent need to confront a strange hostility to science that appears in some of these areas of our social life.  You see it in climate-change denial; you see it in the approach and attitude of many toward the pandemic; the anti-vaxers, etc.  These you can see almost every day in the news.  What you don’t see very often, or openly expressed,  is the distrust of science or the outright rejection of science, as in the anti-evolution attitudes of many religious people.

This is what I would like to consider now.  And I want to stay within the bounds of Christianity because this is my tradition and for all practical purposes it encompasses probably the majority of Americans.  The problem goes way back, and it is quite complex and multi-layered.  But I would like to begin like this:  long ago  I lived in a formal monastic setting.  It was a deeply contemplative life and silence was a key characteristic of the day- to- day life.  But when we did talk, the topic often pertained to what interested us most: the Christian monastic and mystical tradition and other such traditions.  Unfortunately, however, at times our enthusiasm for “our thing” made us speak critically of the rational, the scientific, etc.  It was as if life could be lived truly in this “us vs. them” duality of vision: the rational-scientific v. the intuitive-mystical.  But to be honest, the “other side” carried its own share of hostility to us “mystics.”  When I was studying theology in a very liberal seminary, one of my theology professors said one day, “Those people over there [pointing to a neighboring major state university] think what we are doing here is just a notch above witchcraft.”  Perhaps a bit exaggerated, but not too much!  I know from personal experience that quite a few of the scientists and intellectuals over there thought most of religion was nonsense, hocus-pocus, make-believe, which most smart people outgrow.  So, admittedly, there was/is a problem on both sides of these human endeavors.  

But, like I said, I will stick to “my side,” the religion side.  Even as I say this, however, we must remember how religion of any and all traditions is embedded in a very real cultural matrix and a real quagmire of historical facts.  The fact is that there is a long anti-intellectual strain in American culture that forms the basis of the anti-science attitude.  Just for a starter, there is the universal tendency for the less educated to distrust, even dislike the more educated.  You’ll hear the word “intellectual” used in a derogatory way in many segments of American society(this is not to deny that there can be a nasty snobbishness in “smart” people).  There is a whole political dimension to this also, but we won’t get into that.  Where we really hit the wall, however,  is with a certain American religious sensibility, both the Catholic and Protestant kind.  

What you have to remember is that basic New Testament Christianity somehow got transformed into an authority and power greedy machine called the Church.  This sought to dictate to the whole of the human reality what is and isn’t true.  Note the Galileo affair; note the torture and burning of witches and heretics; note the banning of books; note the alliances with reactionary monarchies instead with emerging democracies; etc., etc.  Needless to say there was a reaction to all this, and one effect was the eviscerating of the authority of all Christianity.  Rational philosophy and science became dominant, and it seemed like there were two worlds: the religious, the spiritual, the mystical; and the rational, scientific.  Both claimed a kind of priority or dominance over the whole; neither was right.  On one side, fundamentalism and conservative religious movements emerged; on the other, atheism or just pure secularism, a detachment from all religious considerations, as if religion was merely a matter of “feeling” and not thought.  

When I was a young boy, my initiation into religious experience was through science.  I was engrossed and fascinated by the awesome nature of the universe around me.  Science was a window on something utterly mysterious, absolutely beautiful and truly majestic.  When I looked through my small telescope at the Andromeda galaxy, I was seeing this fuzzy glow that was over 3 million light years away, meaning that light had been traveling for over 3 million years….I was looking back into time before the dawn of humanity.   And this was the closest galaxy to our own Milky Way!   How immense and incredibly vast this world was!   And then just think of the intricate, complex, perfectly harmonized body chemistry going on in our bodies to keep us alive moment to moment.  Go outside and you see in the mountains the enormity of tectonic forces at work under the earth’s surface—John Muir thought he was in God’s true cathedral when he was in the Sierra’s and Ansel Adams sensed the transcendent in the presence of the mountains.   Or look into the face of any living creature and you will see that mysterious spark of life in each and every eye.   The Real is the true icon of the Transcendent, and true science is the handmaid, the servant of the Real.  Science does not obscure or diminish the transcendent; it brings it more to our sensibility.  When ancient people stared at the night sky, they mythicized what they saw and did not realize the enormous reality that was so apparent, so THERE.  When science emerged and we began to understand this incredible world embracing us, it should have only enhanced true religiosity and true spirituality.  (But the Church was more interested in controlling people and missed its true calling.)  People who want to use science to diminish religion have not really opened themselves up to what science brings to the human heart.  And people who fear that science destroys religion, have neither true religion nor true science in view.

One last point:  when science and rationalism became a major paradigm in Western culture, seemingly threatening the spiritual (and why that was so was largely the problem with the ongoing religiosity), there were many different kinds of reactions as I mentioned.   One of these, which was at least interesting and had something authentic about it,  was the Romantic movement in the arts; another, more radical attitude, was manifested in Russian Christianity (among many other places), the radical Slavophiles and religious philosophers.  Their attitude can be summed up like this:  if the choice is between the truth and Christ, then I always choose Christ.  One is tempted to say that this is an absurdity, but in fact these folks explicitly said that the embrace of “the absurd” was essential to faith.  In other words, if 1+1 =2 is against my faith, I reject that 1+1=2….why can’t 1+1 equal 3?  In this worldview faith and reason are in a hostile relationship, and reason and scientific evidence are a threat to my faith.  (There is a long history of a misinterpretation of Tertullian, seemingly saying “I believe BECAUSE it is absurd.”  This is a gross error in historical transmission; not what he meant at all; but this misinterpretation traveled through history and entered certain existentialist writers of the modern era.  Also, another gross misunderstanding is one of attributing this attitude to Zen, wrongly seeing Zen as an embrace or irrationality when it is emphatically a transcending of the rational scope of our minds.  You don’t get a lobotomy when you take up Zen!)

In any case, what is sad about these people is that they don’t realize that any and all truth, all that is true, no matter whether grand and profound or trivial or miniscule, whether utterly clear or faint, each and every truth is a messenger of the Transcendent, a window on the Absolute.  Yes, even 1+1=2, in its own trivial, tiny way is a messenger of the transcendent….if you know how to read the message.  And so is the chemistry of that blade of grass, and the nose of the bear that can smell your sandwich from a mile away, and so are the billions of galaxies with each one carrying billions of stars, and so is Aristotle’s analysis of the political community, and Einstein’s theory of general relativity  and the beautiful mathematical symmetry of great architecture, and so is …… but you have to learn how to read the message.

Some Social Considerations

A.  Does anyone still remember Marshall McLuhan?  A very important thinker to this day even though he died over 40 years ago.   He was a Canadian professor of literature who analyzed what we call “media” and the ways communication takes place.  He made a big splash in the ‘50s and ‘60s with some ground-breaking and revolutionary ideas.  The two main books he wrote were Understanding Media and The Medium is the Massage, the latter being a play on the word “message,” which was the central thesis of his point: the medium of the communication, the way we communicate,  is more important than the content of our communication.  This was and still is a bit shocking to take in.  A lot of critics popped up to denounce and misinterpret what he was saying.  

Through several decades of writings he abundantly demonstrated how his central thesis worked:  human beings make and shape the tools they use, and then the tools shape them.  It is the latter point which is the least understood and appreciated and has enormous implications.  I won’t go into the details of his analysis, but just consider one special moment and one special example in history:  the invention of the radio and the loudspeaker, the electrical amplification of the human voice at the beginning of the 20th century.  This allowed not just the enhancement of the voice, but more like an amplification and projection of the person.  McLuhan says that Hitler was only possible because of this new technology.  His mesmerizing madness was projected out to thousands upon thousands all at once, not just a small crowd that one voice could reach.  And somehow it amplified its forcefulness.  

McLuhan died before the era of the personal computer and the internet, but his analysis holds here even more.  Would the “Trump phenomenon” be possible if not for the environment created by social media, where anyone and every one can live within their own world of “facts”?  Only that is “true” and accepted which feeds my own prejudices and is coherent with my own fears, anxieties, hatreds, etc.   We have created social media, and now they are forming us into something very scary where rational discourse, objective facts, science, and reasonable persuasion are becoming endangered.

And just think of that key icon of contemporary social life: the smart cell phone.  You see people sitting around a table or walking down the street and each one is “into” his/her own reality.  I have seen young people out on a trail in the wilds either constantly checking their phones for messages or listening to music.  Obviously something is changing in our self-awareness, in our sense of relatedness and our connections to what is real.  

So McLuhan’s point is that a  new“tool” is never simply some additional part in our tool chest or an extraneous entity in our collection of tools, but it becomes an integral part of our environment and this then “ massages” our very consciousness.  McLuhan says that  the one thing a fish has absolutely no knowledge of is water….it is it’s environment and you never can have a true grasp of your environment because you can never step outside it.  Every new “tool” really becomes part of our total environment and we can no longer grasp it’s effects on us.  Decades before McLuhan, Heidegger pointed out that technology now is the “frame” of the window we have on reality, whether it be religious, social, natural, or even personal.  He called it the “enframing” of technology.  We are unaware that what we “see through the window” has been already “framed” for us.  Something to ponder.

A few McLuhan quotes:

“First we build the tools, then they build us.”

“The poet, the artist, the sleuth – whoever sharpens our perception tends to be antisocial; rarely “well-adjusted”, he cannot go along with currents and trends. A strange bond often exists between antisocial types in their power to see environments as they really are. This need to interface, to confront environments with a certain antisocial power is manifest in the famous story “The Emperor’s New Clothes”.”      [Comment:  Think also what Merton said about the monk in his writings in the ‘60s]

“It is just when people are all engaged in snooping on themselves and one another that they become anesthetized to the whole process. Tranquilizers and anesthetics, private and corporate, become the largest business in the world just as the world is attempting to maximize every form of alert. Sound-light shows, as new cliché, are in effect mergers, retrievers of the tribal condition. It is a state that has already overtaken private enterprise, as individual businesses form into massive conglomerates. As information itself becomes the largest business in the world, data banks know more about individual people than the people do themselves. The more the data banks record about each one of us, the less we exist.”

“In Jesus Christ, there is no distance or separation between the medium and the message: it is the one case where we can say that the medium and the message are fully one and the same.”

“Madison Avenue is a very powerful aggression against private consciousness. A demand that you yield your private consciousness to public manipulation.”

“In the Phaedrus, Plato argued that the new arrival of writing would revolutionize culture for the worst. He suggested that it would substitute reminiscence for thought and mechanical learning for the true dialect of the living quest for truth by disc”

“In this electronic age we see ourselves being translated more and more into the form of information, moving toward the technological extension of consciousness.”

“Everybody experiences far more than he understands. Yet it is experience, rather than understanding, that influences behavior.”

B.  And now for something different.  I read recently that the Pope now officially allows women to be lectors and altar girls at Mass.  Women everywhere must be celebrating this “leap” forward!  Excuse the sarcasm, but this stuff is just amazing.  In past years there were some dioceses where females were allowed as lectors and altar servers, but these were exceptional and depended on the “liberalism” of the local bishop.  Conservative Catholics really frowned on this practice, but the Vatican “looked” the other way for a while hoping that would mollify women who were calling for the priesthood.  One feels like it’s still the same old thing:  a theologically based misogyny ….just like there was a religiously justified slavery in past centuries.   One wonders how long all this will last.

Misogyny, this peculiar demeaning of women while speaking a lofty and sublime language while seemingly “elevating” them,  is an age-old dynamic within all of Christianity.   And I am not just picking on Christianity or my own tradition of Catholicism; this unfortunate distortion exists in plenty in all religious traditions.  When you begin to examine this phenomenon across all borders, you begin to get a sense that this is a human, cultural distortion that is imposed and imprinted on the religious matrix of religious symbols, rituals, notions, relationships, concepts, etc.   What is astonishing is how ineffectual each and every religious tradition is in dealing with these distortions.  You would think they would be the most empowered to overcome these distortions.  Here you begin to sense why so many, young and old, begin to shun the religious traditions they were born in.

C.  And this brings up another remarkable “wrinkle” in the fabric of Christianity, all of it, which also alienates many these days:  the bizarre and sick adherence of so many Christians of all denominations to Trump and Trumpism.  White Evangelicals seem to be especially guilty here.  Recently there was this article in the New York Times about an evangelical pastor who really got scorched by believers for not sticking with Trump.  Here is a quote from that piece:

“’Over the last 72 hours, I have received multiple death threats and thousands upon thousands of emails from Christians saying the nastiest and most vulgar things I have ever heard toward my family and ministry. I have been labeled a coward, sellout, a traitor to the Holy Spirit, and cussed out at least 500 times.’

This is the beginning of a Facebook post from Sunday by the conservative preacher Jeremiah Johnson. On Jan. 7, the day after the storming of the Capitol, Johnson had issued a public apology asserting that God removed Donald Trump from office because of his pride and arrogance, and to humble those, like Johnson, who had fervently supported him.

The response was swift and vicious. As he put it in that later Facebook post, ‘I have been flabbergasted at the barrage of continued conspiracy theories being sent every minute our way and the pure hatred being unleashed. To my great heartache, I’m convinced parts of the prophetic/charismatic movement are far SICKER than I could have ever dreamed of.’

This is what is happening inside evangelical Christianity and within conservatism right now. As a conservative Christian friend of mine put it, there is strife within every family, within every congregation, and it may take generations to recover.”

And some wonder why all the Churches are losing support and membership in so many segments of society!

UNCLE SCROOGE AND OTHER ANNOYANCES

1.  Charles Dickens is still being read in high school and college literature classes, but he is hardly a writer of interest in our “modern times.”  He was enormously popular in the 19th century, but either now or then he was and is very much under appreciated and underrated.  Paradoxically, his talent as a storyteller may distract from the challenging vision at the core of those stories.  

Dickens lived and wrote at the height of the Industrial Revolution that ushered in the modern industrial world.  The social and economic effects of all this was very evident in Dickens’ world, and he was deeply troubled by it.  It was a world of unfettered capitalism, one theorized by Adam Smith, considered the “father of modern capitalism.”  It was a world of atomized individualism where every individual pursued their own self-interest in as unlimited a way as possible.  The pursuit of wealth was the point of life, and of course the majority of people were doomed to misery in this scheme.  

This is the backdrop of Dickens popular Christmas story, “A Christmas Carol.”  It is generally presented as a sentimental, “good-feel” story told every Christmastime.  It’s deeper social and religious implications are mostly ignored or overlooked.  Recall the outlines of the story:  Scrooge is the new businessman of the Victorian era, the total capitalist whose overriding focus is on making and keeping money.  It is Christmas Eve and he expects his chief clerk to show up for work on Christmas Day—for him Christmas is just an excuse to shirk one’s duty in the acquisition of wealth.  He considers the poor lazy and trying to deprive him of his wealth.  When he goes to bed at night three spirits visit him in an attempt to convert his heart to something beyond this capitalist obsession: the Spirit of Christmas Past, showing him his own childhood, the pain which he experienced which led him on the road to this state of mind and heart (interestingly illustrating a Buddhist notion of how one bad act creates a whole wave of bad acts that resonate through time); then the Spirit of Christmas Present, showing him the pain and struggles of the people around him now; finally, the Spirit of Christmas Future, ultimately his own death, and the meaninglessness of his own life.  He wakes up in terror but is relieved he can still change the trajectory of his life and so he begins.  So Dickens was showing both the possibility and necessity of this transformation of vision which was dominant in his society.  In this regard he is very similar to his contemporary, Dostoyevsky.  Both point to a deep transformation of heart that is needed to confront the problems that modernity brings, rather than the structural changes that socialists would promote.  Probably both are necessary, but truly the inner change is most essential if anything real and lasting is to take place.  Gandhi understood that very well.

Now, for another, different view, we turn to that marvelous font of humor and satire, “The Onion.”  Consider this headline recently appearing in The Onion:

“Report Finds Majority Of Business Leaders Visited By 3 Spirits Make No Changes To Lifestyle.”  A funny and obvious reference to Dickens’ story, and it does raise some interesting questions.  You have to wonder what it would take to change the vision of one of our billionaires, or the top 1%?  Rockefeller and Carneige, in 19th century America, started massive philanthropy projects to make-up or cover up their deeds of ill-gotten gains.  But they never once addressed the toxicity of this pursuit of wealth.   In fact, then and now, this dynamic is defended as of benefit to all.  It comes across in various ways.  In a recent Wall Street Journal piece there is this:

In Defense of Scrooge, Whose Thrift Blessed the World

In the 1840s, Dickens didn’t see how businessmen like his hero were already lifting mankind from poverty.”

What a different view of things!!  And some of this shows up in what is called “trickle-down economics,” championed by Republicans since the Reagan era.  Supposedly when the rich thrive we all benefit.  But a very recent article from the Business Insider (hardly a far Left organ!) reports:

“A huge study of 50 years of tax cuts for the wealthy suggests ‘trickle-down’ economics makes inequality worse.”

Regardless, the debate will continue.  But you do have to wonder what would happen if the Spirits showed up at the doorstep of our politicians,  if the three Spirits would show up to Sen. Mitch McConnell, for example?  Would his hard, stony heart change?  And what about Pres-elect Biden?  Would his miserly attitude to student-debt forgiveness change?  Or this crazy insistence on maintaining a for-profit healthcare system?  (I read somewhere that hedge funds are buying into healthcare in anticipation of good profits in the next years.)  Regardless…..one can dream.

2.  This op-ed piece appeared in the NY Times:

“The Forgotten Radicalism of Jesus Christ

First-century Christians weren’t prepared for what a truly inclusive figure he was, and what was true then is still true today.”

For those studying the Gospels academically this would be standard stuff, but for the average Christian who has received only a domesticated vision of Jesus through his Church, it can be a bit of a shock.  The article, however, did annoy me in that it seemed to limit Jesus’ radicalness to his “inclusivity” and left out both the theological and economic radicalness implicit in his words  and practice.

3.  Ok, now this has been VERY annoying:  all these Christians (including Catholic bishops) fighting the CDC guidelines curtailing  large gatherings as in churches or prayer groups, etc.  Even fighting the mask mandate.  Here’s a few examples:


Why You Can’t Meet God Over Zoom – The New York Times 

“’Unconstitutional and illegal’: Dozens of maskless Bay Area Christmas carolers protest health order”   from SF Gate

And from USA Today:

“About 100 people organized by former child star Kirk Cameron, many of them without masks or practicing social distancing, gathered in Southern California Tuesday night to sing Christmas carols.

Cameron, 50, a devout Christian, promoted the event, which took place in a mall parking lot in Thousand Oaks, Calif., in advance on social media, just as he did with a previous one on Dec. 13 touted as a “Christmas caroling peaceful protest.”

Cameron, who famously starred in the ‘Growing Pains TV sitcom, organized the event apparently to protest Gov. Gavin Newsom’s latest stay-at-home order.

“Have you ever sung Christmas carols by candlelight at a time where your state governor has prohibited you from doing that in America?” Kirk said in an Instagram video posted Dec. 11. ‘If you love God, if you love Christmas and you love liberty, you’re not gonna want to miss this.’

Though his Dec. 13 protest stoked controversy, Cameron told Fox News that people are “clamoring” for community this holiday season.

‘This is the land of the free and the home of the brave, and there are thousands and thousands of people in our community who would rather not suffer in isolation and come out to sing and express their gratitude,’ Cameron told Fox News host Shannon Bream in a clip shared to his Instagram Dec. 18. ‘We believe that there is immunity in community, but there is desolation in isolation, and I want to give people hope.’’

And there are a lot more similar examples, and my only comment is that I feel sorry for their impoverished understanding of God, community, freedom, civic responsibility, etc.

4. Ah, last but not the least annoyance: the major media, like NY Times, Washington Post, CNN, in their reporting on Biden’s new cabinet.  They (and we) are so relieved that the insanity of Trump has been ousted that they seem unable to say anything critical toward Biden (there are the occasional op-ed pieces pointing to a mild worry about this or that).  Particularly I am astonished how Biden’s picks for the cabinet have passed such low level scrutiny, as if nobody wanted to find any problems with any of them.  You have to go to the less-read, more Leftist websites to get a better picture of what is going on, places like Common Dreams, Democracy Now, and Truthout.

One especially good and historic choice was Deb Haaland for Secretary of the Interior.  She is a Native American of the Pueblo Tribe, and the Washington Post caught the significance of this choice in a very good story:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-environment/2020/12/24/native-americans-haaland/

However, so many of all the other choices leave so much to be desired it is really sad—another opportunity for change blown.     Biden almost never ventured outside the Clinton-Obama crowd, and in some cases clearly rejected a more Left approach…like in rejecting AOC a seat on the Energy Committee in the House because of her vigorous advocacy of the Green New Deal.   All you can do is hope, but that may be another delusion.  Here is the sad catalog of appointees as narrated by Chris Hedges in Common Dreams:

 

 

  “The list of new administration officials includes retired General Lloyd J. Austin III who is being nominated to be secretary of defense. Austin is on the board of Raytheon Technologies and a partner at Pine Island Capital, a firm that invests in defense industries and also includes Antony Blinken, Biden’s nominee to be secretary of state.  Blinken, who was deputy national security adviser and deputy secretary of state, is a strong supporter of the apartheid state of Israel.  He was one of the architects of the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq and a proponent of the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, resulting in yet another failed state in the Middle East.

Janet Yellen, former Federal Reserve chair under Barack Obama, is slated to be Treasury Secretary. Yellen as the chair of Bill Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisors (CEA) and later as a member of the board of the Federal Reserve, backed the repeal of Glass-Steagall, which led to the banking crisis of 2008.  She supported the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). She also lobbied for a new statistical metric intended to lower payments to senior citizens on Social Security.  Yellen backed “quantitative easing” that provided trillions in virtually no-interest loans to Wall Street, loans used to bail out banks and corporations and engage in massive stock buy-backs while the victims of financial fraud were abandoned.

 Former Secretary of State John Kerry is to become a special envoy for climate. Kerry championed the massive expansion of domestic oil and gas production, largely through fracking, and, according to Obama’s memoir, worked doggedly to convince those concerned about the climate crisis to “offer up concessions on subsidies for the nuclear power industry and the opening of additional U.S. coastlines to offshore oil drilling.”

Avril Haines, a former Obama deputy CIA chief, is to become Biden’s director of national intelligence. Haines oversaw Obama’s expanded and murderous drone program overseas and backed Gina Haspel’s nomination to be the head of the CIA, despite Haspels’ direct involvement in the CIA torture program carried out in black sites around the globe. Haines called Haspel “intelligent, compassionate, and fair.” Brian Deese, the executive who was in charge of the “climate portfolio” at BlackRock, which invests heavily in fossil fuels, including coal, and who served as a former Obama economic adviser who advocated austerity measures, has been chosen to run the White House’s economic policy.

Neera Tanden, a former aide to Hillary Clinton, has been picked to be director of the Office of Management and Budget. Tanden, as the head of the Democratic Party’s thinktank, the Center for American Progress, raised millions in dark money from Silicon Valley and Wall Street.  Her donors include Bain Capital, Blackstone, Evercore, Walmart and the defense contractor Northrup Grumman. The United Arab Emirates, a close ally of Saudi Arabia in the war in Yemen, also gave the thinktank between $1.5 million and $3 million. She relentlessly ridicules Sanders and his supporters on cable news and social media. She also proposed a plank in the Democratic platform calling for the bombing Iran. “

There’s more, but enough is enough.

Not to end on a note of annoyance during this Christmas season, let me end with something unusual ( for Christmas, that is):  a favorite quote from that marvelous Sufi, Rumi:

“There came one and knocked at the door of the Beloved.
And a voice answered and said, ‘Who is there?’
The lover replied, ‘It is I.’
‘Go hence,’ returned the voice;
‘there is no room within for thee and me.’
Then came the lover a second time and knocked and again the voice demanded,
‘Who is there?’
He answered, ‘It is thou.’
‘Enter,’ said the voice, ‘for I am within.”

And this is a REAL Christmas message if you know how to read it!

 

 

                                                              

Readings

Not too long ago I read in a mildly liberal outlet, the National Catholic Reporter, a rather vigorous criticism of AOC (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez), my favorite congresswoman.  Now I would never claim that she (or anyone on the Left) is flawless or beyond criticism—far from it.  But this put-down of AOC manifests a certain ignorance and several persistent problems and some interesting pitfalls of interpreting texts.  

It appears that recently AOC had said to the National Catholic Reporter that one of her favorite Biblical pericopes was the one about Jesus chasing the moneychangers from the Temple.  The critic said that this manifests a certain anti-Semitism and plays into an age-old use of that text in Western Christianity in order to persecute Jews.  Some of this is very true.  But that AOC’s liking of this pericope shows a clear sign of anti-Semitism is seriously mistaken and obscures a real problem:  religious scriptures can be used and have been used to justify all kinds of positions, sometimes very contradictory, sometimes monstrously evil.  Think about it:  the Bible has been used to support slavery, monarchy, exploitation of the earth, subjugation of women, death penalty, war, even torture, accumulation of wealth, class systems, intolerance of difference, etc.; but also, liberation, revolution, classless society, debt forgiveness, nonviolence, equality of all, etc.   Very much the same holds for the sacred scriptures of the other great religions.  As sophisticated interpreters have been pointing out now for decades, what you get out of the written word depends quite a bit on what you bring to it.  But there is a deeper way of approaching the problem:  it is only when you begin to realize your true identity (for the Christian, in Paul’s terms, “in Christ”)  that the scriptures unfold their truth and you can begin to separate the “wheat from the chaff.”  But truly there is a “chicken and egg” dilemma here….which comes first.  Well, lets just say that the scriptures can help you to begin this journey of discovery.  Once you begin to realize a deeper sense of who you really are, you begin to see the Scriptures in a deeper way and that in turn unfolds a still deeper realization of self.  And so on.

(Consider the transformation of the religious murderous Saul of Tarsus to Paul, beginning with an experience of a radically new sense of identity to a complete reworking of the Hebrew religious ethos.)

Now lets backtrack to this pericope and this criticism of AOC.  The logic of the critic could imply that his criticism would also apply to Jesus of Nazareth (truly a Jew!) and Paul (albeit a “changed” Jew).   And such an attitude and view leads people to accuse any critic of the State of Israel as anti-Semitic.  To be fair, I won’t say that this is the position of this critic, but it is an underlying sentiment like that which leads to such views.  But lets consider two other kinds of reading of this pericope.   

The first reading flows along traditional lines.   We note that the pericope is present in all 4 Gospels, making it significant by not being left out from any of the Gospels.  Also, the pericope is always situated near the passion account in the Synoptics and near the beginning in the Gospel of John….and considering that the whole Gospel of John can be seen as the Passion account—so much of other Synoptic materials left out—it is still very much tied to the Passion narrative.   Now the “moneychangers” in the Temple refers probably to the folks doing currency exchange for the sacrificial  animals that were being bought and sold.  So the Gospel writers are emphasizing the replacement of the old ritual with something more sublime and transcendent.  Animal sacrifices are external to our selfhood and obfuscate our relationship to God and who we are.  Something much greater is needed for that.  There is also the added point which some scholars point to:  the Temple was a repository of much money which the Temple authorities loaned out to the poor who lost their land when they couldn’t repay their debt.  

Another reading could be a more symbolic approach:  whatever be the historical incident, the “Temple” is the “meeting ground” of the human and the divine, and so the “Temple” can mean the heart or even the whole cosmos.  You can take it from there, then, the deeper impact of this pericope.

Something else I read not too long ago is another sharp criticism of a history book studying the full extent of the massacre of Native Americans in California.  Scholars who have examined this period of our history have used the word “genocide,” not without some controversy.  This critic did not seem to be a scholar but just someone somewhat angry that his European ancestors were being singled out as especially murderous, racist, and intent on  “ethnic cleansing.”  His basic argument was “Everyone was doing it.”  He seems to be saying that there was nothing “special” or “racial” about this wiping out of whole populations and then gutting out their culture and pushing the survivors into abject poverty.  It was simply the universal felt greed that drove the Europeans to grab the gold country for themselves.  To a certain extent he is right:  Native Americans, both in North America and South America did commit various atrocities upon each other; there are signs of cannibalism and human sacrifice in the Americas as well as all over the world; the Hopi, for example, massacred one of their own villages when it seemed they might become Christian or something else; African Blacks sold their own people into slavery; the hordes of Genghis Khan killed indiscriminately, etc., etc.   All this proves is that the universal human condition is very bad off and always has been.  But it does not take away the “specialness” of each of these historical moments and tragedies.  The reason why many Americans have a hard time accepting what our ancestors did both to the Native Americans and to the Blacks who were enslaved is that we are all enjoying the benefits of their dark deeds.  One should ponder this a while.

Another book I have read recently:  What’s Wrong with Mindfulness (And What Isn’t).  This is a collection of essays by a group of American Zen teachers  presenting a critique of the modern secularized “mindfulness” movement in our society.  Here’s a few quotes from the Introduction:

“Now it is mindfulness’s turn to be appropriated by Western culture as the philosopher’s stone.  Sometimes idealized as a cure-all and sometimes vilified as a New Age pablum, it has spread into society at large and, like Zen, expanded beyond its original training venues, religious practices, and cultural contexts.  “Mindfulness” is becoming a generic term whose meaning becomes less clear in direct proportion to the hype it generates.  It can be found everywhere; corporate retreats, medical centers, sports facilities, and even the military have adopted it as a way to decrease stress and improve performance.

Mindfulness has indeed entered the marketplace in the West, but it is questionable whether its hands are always bliss bestowing; there is even a danger of them becoming as grasping as all the other hands to be found there.  This is not because mindfulness’s proponents are greedily chasing after money—though sadly that seems to be a not-infrequent phenomenon—but because the movement seems to be preoccupied with results….  The Heart Sutra, a text at the very core of Mahayana Buddhism teaching, proclaims there is ‘no path, no wisdom, and no gain.’  ‘No gain’ is the very antithesis of spiritual materialism; it rejects any means-to-an-end conceptualization or use of meditation.”

Another quote:

“Zen in America has itself been subject to three powerful destabilizing trends: secularization (taking practice out of its monastic context with its associated religious rituals), instrumentalization (for example, using meditation as a ‘technique’ for realizing personal self transformation), and deracination (extracting Buddhist practices from their cultural and historical roots).  All of the authors in this book are concerned, though, that the mindfulness movement sometimes carries these trends to extremes.  Removed from its rich—and rigorously ascetic—Theravada Buddist context, mindfulness has been imported to the West as a fully secularized technique that can be learned and practiced over the course of a few weeks or even within the confines of a weekend workshop.  This consumer-oriented, quick-fix approach to meditation, which has come to be dubbed ‘Mc Mindfulness,’ has raised serious questions in our minds about the trends of which we are a part.”

I recommend this book for anyone who has significant Buddhist connections or interests.

Right now I am presently reading a truly wonderful, beautiful book:  The Chinese Painter as Poet by Jonathan Chaves.  It is a most marvelous presentation of that whole artistic tradition, and it invites you into some very deep places!

The website Hermitary had a list of favorite poets for times of solitude and reclusion.

The five favorite poets are: 1. Hanshan, 2. Hsieh Ling-yun, 3. Saigyo, 4. Ryokan, 5. Shiwu (Stonehouse).

Yup, a good list….no disagreements here.  Maybe I would put them in slightly different order, but truly  the incomparable Hanshan is #1!

Ok, this is going to be different!  But considering the political turmoil and insanity of our days, it is appropriate.

One of the truly great speeches in American political history was Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s speech in 1936 right before the election.  He had been elected in 1932 during the height of the Depression, things were very bad and desperate.  Much, much worse than today.  Banks were failing one after another, people without jobs losing all their savings.  FDR was willing to try anything and everything to turn things around.  He didn’t care about labels like “socialism,” etc.  But the Republicans really hated him because even though he himself was from the upper classes, he attacked their upper class economy.  They tried to block him every way they could.  (Incidentally, Republicans hated him so much that much of their agenda from the ‘30s to the Reagan era was mostly about dismantling “the Roosevelt thing.”  Sadly, a wing of the Democratic Party in the ‘90s, led by the Clinton faction, began to change the orientation of the Party toward being more friendly with Big Business.)

In the speech he fully faced their animosity, their obstructionism, their attacks on him.  In one of the more famous lines he went on to list the enemies of peace and prosperity:  “ business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering.” He went on to claim that these forces were united against his candidacy; that “They are unanimous in their hate for me — and I welcome their hatred.”  Basically he said to the Republicans in our slang, “Bring it on!  I am going to defeat you.”  He won huge majorities in Congress and was able to push a lot of his program through.  

Here you can read or listen to this great speech:

https://millercenter.org/the-presidency/presidential-speeches/october-31-1936-speech-madison-square-garden

(By the way, his acceptance speech at the Convention just a few months before was also magnificent:

 https://millercenter.org/the-presidency/presidential-speeches/june-27-1936-democratic-national-convention

This is what political greatness is all about, and when we measure today’s crowd against this, it’s kind of sad.  And also, Roosevelt dealt with a great majority of people who were so desperate and so in need that they were open to listen to him.   Alas, today, it seems that almost half the American populace is lost in delusion, blindness, ignorance, paralysis, etc.

Every Christmas I reread this meditative essay by Thomas Merton in his collection Raids on the Unspeakable:   “The Time of the End is the Time of No Room.  It is the best reflection on the Christmas story that I have ever read, and it shows it is not some sentimental account which is window dressing for our Christmas festivities.  While you have that little book in hand, touch base also with another beautiful essay:  “Rain and the Rhinoceros.”  It doesn’t get any better than this!