Thursday, February 27, 2014

Hey! Wanna Buy a Book!

(Err - sorry about the wonky formatting in this post - don't quite know what happened here...)

So, Lent is coming up folks. Meanwhile, once again my blog traffic seems to be trending upwards. For my new readers (hi there, y'all!) I point out periodically that besides the blog I have also written a few books, which people have been known to buy once in a while, and even read.

Since Lent is a good time to do some spiritual reading, I thought it would be good to run the 'book selling post' once again. So, let me tell you about what I have for you all so far.

First is my latest one: The I-Choice: Staying Human in a Digital AgeThis is my response to our technological culture and the subtle and not-so-subtle effects it is having on all of us. Lots of folks consider reducing or even altogether eliminating their social media intake in Lent. Reading this book can take the place of all those empty hours you usually wasted on Facebook! 

People who have read it have given me great feedback on it, that besides giving food for thought about the devices we use and how they affect us, it also invites us to contemplate just what it means to be a human being anyhow - what is this business of humanity, and what is the good of it? Not a bad subject for Lenten meditation.

Second is Going Home, an exploration of God's mercy in the writings of Catherine de Hueck Doherty, meditating on the parable of the prodigal son. People seem to be finding it truly helpful in contemplating and deepening their faith in the mercy of the Father. Needless to say, this book would be a suitable Lenten spiritual reading. Next:

In a similar vein, The Air We Breathe is all about Mary in the writings of Catherine Doherty. It was my first book, and both subject and title came to me directly in answer to prayer. Hopefully the rest of the book did, too, at least a little bit. Again, as I look at Mary, I meditate quite a bit on the whole subject of our humanity and what she reveals to us about the whole business of life, faith, God, us, and all those good Lenten subjects. 

And then, for the more innerleckually minded (or those less innerlekshul, but who want extra penance this Lent), there is:

This one is my thesis, and the reason this blog exists. I ended up with hundreds of quotes from Joseph Ratzinger on my laptop and 'information wants to be free.' So... here we all are, 800+ posts later. Finally:

For those of you who can't read, ten talks on the basics of Christian spirituality. Perfect for the car, and for parish study groups. Proven to be effective and again, great for Lenten spiritual reflection and growth!

So there - something to do with all those piles of spare cash you have lying around your house. Seriously, and I know it's a bit lame for me to have to say this, but there's some good stuff here, so hope you can buy a bit and enjoy it. Happy Lent to you all!

Somebody Stop Us, Please!

He who wants to enter the holiness of the day must first lay down the profanity of clattering commerce, of being yoked to toil. He must go away from the screech of dissonant days, from the nervousness and fury of acquisitiveness and the betrayal in embezzling his own life.

He must say farewell to manual work and learn to understand that the world has already been created and will survive without the help of man. Six days a week we wrestle with the world, wringing profit from the earth; on the Sabbath we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in the soil.

The world has our hands, but our soul belongs to Someone Else. Six days a week we seek to dominate the world, on the seventh day we try to dominate the self…

To the biblical mind, labor is the means towards an end, and the Sabbath as a day of rest, as a day of abstaining from toil, is not for the purpose of recovering one’s lost strength and becoming fit for the forthcoming labor. The Sabbath is a day for the sake of life. Man is not a beast of burden, and the Sabbath is not for the purpose of enhancing the efficiency of his work. “Last in creation, first in intention,” the Sabbath is “the end of the creation of heaven and earth.”

The Sabbath is not for the sake of the weekdays; the weekdays are for the sake of the Sabbath. It is not an interlude, but the climax of living.
Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath

Reflection – As we move into some of the most beautiful passages in this beautiful book that treat of the Sabbath itself, the Jewish sense of love and joy in the seventh day and their profound observance of it, of course we again are reading this as Christians, and bring to bear on it our Christian sensibility and understanding of things.

This is fine, as long as we have respect and reverence for the original Jewish context and sense of it all. We may not keep Sabbath quite the way a religious Jew does, and the difference does flow from our specific Christian theology of the first day as opposed to the seventh, the Lord’s Day, the day of the resurrection and the new creation, as opposed to the day of the completion of creation. We have a different story, and so our way of entering Sunday is not the same as the Jewish way of entering Shabbat.

But there is tremendous wisdom and goodness in the Jewish observance of Sabbath, and we are well advised to learn from them and from it to the enrichment and blessing of our lives. This whole business of ‘stopping’, for example. That, by the way, is the Hebrew root word of Shabbat—the verb means simply ‘to stop’.

We have a hard time ‘stopping’, at least in North America. I have read (for example) American commentators who positively brag about the complete inability/refusal of Americans to stop working, ever, even for a day. The ceaseless industry and activity of our times, the so-called ‘Protestant work ethic’, the tendency, even when we stop, to simply find other modes of economic commercial life—this is wildly out of balance.

This year, the shopping frenzy of ‘Black Friday’, the day after American Thanksgiving, got moved by many stores… to Thanksgiving Day itself! Why do something pointless like stay home and spend time with your family and your loved ones when you can run around like a lunatic looking for bargain prices, right?

There is a real tendency to eliminate any sense of Sabbath from our lives. It is as if we behold the real sin of indolence and are so horrified by it that we recoil into endless frenetic activity. Technology is our enemy in this matter, too, as when we do sit down and stop, we tend to fire up the screens of our devices and plunge into yet another form of restless activity.

There is a great need for silence, for contemplation, certainly for prayer, but also for the simple capacity to sit quietly and watch the world unfold without our help. To watch the sun move across the heavens and the wind stir the trees. To look at the flight of a bird, the scamper of a chipmunk, the fall of snow.

God made the world without our help, and the world goes along without our help, you know. And there is something deeply spiritually healthy in taking a moment or two (or – gasp – even a whole day) to take note of that salutary fact. I am not needed for the proper operation of the world, and neither are you. Because we are not strictly necessary, our creation by God comes out of his love for and delight in us—we are not merely some needful utilitarian cog in some cosmic machine.

There is a whole way of being in the world that is not defined by the ceaseless struggle and labor of life and the extracting of a living out of the soil of the world. I can hear all the arguments, of course, of how tough life is and how we all have to work that hard or we’ll all starve to death, etc., etc. You know, somehow the Jews have managed to keep the Sabbath holy all these millennia, and haven’t starved to death doing so. Why, in our world of technological mastery, industrial food production, and unparalleled (truly) generalized wealth and luxury (at least in North America) we are unable to ever stop for a single hour let alone one day a week has more to do with spiritual pathology than economic necessity. As the line goes, somebody stop us, before it's too late!

We have a great deal to learn from the Jewish Sabbath, and a great blessing to derive from taking it to heart and adapting it to our own Christian way of life. Man is not a beast of burden, but a child of God, and it is only by laying down our burdens from time to time that we come to know this.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Time of the Sacred Encounter

The higher goal of spiritual living is not to amass a wealth of information, but to face sacred moments. In a religious experience, for example, it is not a thing that imposes itself on man but a spiritual presence. What is retained in the soul is the moment of insight rather than the place where the act came to pass. A moment of insight is a fortune, transporting us beyond the confines of measured time. Spiritual life begins to decay when we fail to sense the grandeur of what is eternal in time.

Our intention here is not to deprecate the world of space. To disparage space and the blessing of things of space, is to disparage the works of creation, the works which God beheld and saw ‘it was good.’ The world cannot be seen exclusively sub specie temporis. Time and space are interrelated. To overlook either is to be partially blind. What we plead against is man’s unconditional surrender to space, his enslavement to things. We must not forget that it is not a thing that lends significance to a moment; it is the moment that lends significance to things.

The Bible is more concerned with time than with space. It sees the world in the dimension of time. It pays more attention to generations, to events, than to countries, to things; it is more concerned with history than with geography. To understand the teaching of the Bible, one must accept its premise that time has a meaning for life which is at least equal to that of space; that time has a significance and sovereignty of its own.

There is no equivalent for the word ‘thing’ in biblical Hebrew. The word davar which in later Hebrew came to denote thing, means in biblical Hebrew: speech; word; message; report; tidings; advice; request; promise; decision; sentence; theme, story; saying, utterance; business, occupation; acts; good deeds; events; way, manner, reason, cause; but never ‘thing’. Is this a sign of linguistic poverty, or rather an indication of an unwarped view of the world, of not equating reality (derived from the Latin word res, thing) with thinghood?
Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath

Reflection – At this point in our reading of Heschel, I think we do need to interject the specifically Christian understanding of the relation of time and space. He is very strong, very good on affirming the goodness of space and the material universe, so long as we are not enslaved to it.

For the Jewish perspective, and especially in light of this presentation on Shabbat, on the Sabbath, time does indeed have a sovereignty over space, events and history over things, as it is in events and history and the movement of time that God manifests himself to his people. But while this is of great value and holds much truth that is true for everyone, there is a Christian difference in how we understand the interrelation of time and space.

And of course that difference is the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation, which is entirely foreign to Judaism. God became flesh, and the immaterial and eternal entered and united Himself to both time and space in their innermost core. In the Catholic and Orthodox understanding of this, in which the Incarnation remains a continuous event through the sacramental life of the Church and most particularly through the Eucharistic presence of Christ, this does mean that ‘geography’ too assumes a sacred character in our religion that is not exactly what it is in the Jewish faith. We actually believe that God has made an actual home for Himself on the face of the earth, and that home is the tabernacle in which resides the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ, God made man.

That necessary Christian proviso being said, Heschel’s point stands, and stands well. The whole of our spiritual life, its substantial reality and everlasting value, consists in the ongoing encounter with the Person, the Presence, the One who reveals Himself to us and winds His life in with our own and makes the two one in ways that are mostly a deep mystery to us.

The movement of God with us is through time and history and our life’s slow unfolding. While God is indeed with us in space and in place, the action of God wholly transcends place and geography. God comes to us, and this happens when it happens, in sacred time—the kairos of God. This Greek word (pronounced to rhyme with ‘my dose’) signifies the time of the event, as opposed to the measured time (chronos) which is simply thinghood in motion, time as the movements of the hands of the clock.

Heschel, being Jewish, does not utilize the kairos-chronos distinction which is more typical and common in Eastern Christianity. Chronos is time-as-money, time as measured for production, something limited and fleeting which must be mined for its useful content. Kairos is this other reality, time as encounter, as event, as a sacred moment in which there is no utility, no ‘profit’, nothing to achieve, nothing to do.

It is kairos that bears us into the presence of God, and it is above all the kairos of liturgy and worship—sacred time occurring in sacred space, a time unmeasured by utilitarianism and economic necessity, the seamless coming together of time and space into a genuine encounter with the God who has truly embraced both in Jesus Christ, that is the genuine Christian Sabbath, the temple in time and space, the Tent of Meeting where God comes to his people to radiate his glory and love upon them.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Beyond Capitalism and Socialism

We are all infatuated with the splendor of space, with the grandeur of things of space. Thing is a category which lies heavy on our minds, tyrannizing all our thoughts. Our imagination tends to mold all concepts in its image. In our daily lives we attend primarily to that which the senses are spelling out for us: to what the eye perceives, the what the fingers touch. Reality to us is thinghood, consisting of substances that occupy space; even God is conceived by most of us as a thing.

The result of our thinginess is our blindness to all reality that fails to identify itself as a thing, as a matter of fact. This is obvious in our understanding of time, which, being thingless and insubstantial, appears to us as if it had no reality.

Indeed, we know what to do with space but do not know what to do about time, except to make it subservient to space. Most of us seem to labor for the sake of the things of space. As a result we suffer from a deeply rooted dread of time and stand aghast when compelled to look into its face.

Time to us is sarcasm, a slick treacherous monster with a jaw like a furnace incinerating every moment of our lives. Shrinking, therefore, from facing time, we escape for shelter to things of space. The intentions we are unable to carry out we deposit in space; possessions become the symbols of our repressions, jubilees of frustration. But things of space are not fireproof; they only add fuel to the flames. Is the joy of possession an antidote to terror of time which grows to be a dread of inevitable death? Things, when magnified, are forgeries of happiness, they are a threat to our very lives; we are more harassed than supported by the Frankenstein of spatial things.
Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath

Reflection – What Heschel is describing here is the inner spiritual dynamism of the capital sin of avarice, although he does not use that word. The avaricious soul labors under a terror of time, a haunting awareness of the passage of time and its inexorable movement forward.

The flight into immoveable space and the objects that fill it, the making of those objects into idols the possession of which is the whole goal and sum of life, is a flight from time and ultimately the fear of death. It is there, in the storing up of riches, that we seem to find a solid base on which to build our lives.

Of course this is deeply illusory. As Heschel so aptly puts it, the things of space are not fireproof. We can seem to subdue time to the service of space and the amassing of the goods of space (I almost typed ‘gods of space there’). But time wins – even if our goods are durable, we are not, and at any rate they don’t really make us happy anyway.

Or if they do make us happy, it is at too high a cost. The only way to be satisfied with material goods as a source of happiness is to ruthlessly eliminate from one’s inner being any kind of spiritual hunger, any longing for something that cannot be satisfied by a good meal, a shiny toy, physical comfort or sensual pleasure. The soul steeped in avarice without any check on it is reduced to an animalistic state of being, and the heights and depths of human striving and attaining is lost to it.

Heschel is of course treating all this en route to a completely different mode of reality, a whole other way of experiencing and knowing life. Time no longer the false slave of space, being spent in the pursuit of illusory and fleeting material happiness, while taking its pitiless revenge in the end.

The happy state of affairs is the precise reverse, of course. Space and the objects and goods of space being at the service of time. Time as the place of encounter, the mode of being given us in which to act and dispose of our personal being as gift, as communion, as generosity and kindliness, friendship and service.

Time is money, we say – time the slave of wealth. Time is not money; time is love, and ‘money’ (material goods) are the slave of love, or are meant to be so in this world. It is a radical shift of mind and heart—truly, a radical conversion—that is needed in our whole approach to economics and social organization, I believe. It is not about capitalism vs. socialism. It is about time vs. space, things vs. people, and the right ordering of not so much the financial systems and business models but the human heart.

There is no law on earth, no set of new regulations, no taxation system, no government policy or initiative, that can make us love one another. And it is love of neighbor alone that will heal the world—personal, generous, unstinting, sacrificial love. And it is all wrapped up in these deep questions of time and space, human happiness in a world of temporality and transience. How do we carve out a space in time where these deeper concerns of love and of the heart will thrive? That is the matter of the Sabbath, and the matter of Heschel’s book.

Updated to add: Welcome, Sheavians! (I for one welcome our new sheavian overlords). While you're here reading my random musings on economics, love, time, and space, check out my series of Lenten blogs on the home page. I am dedicating the blog from now to Easter to solid spiritual reflections on the season - check it out.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Into the Sacred Enclosure

Technical civilization is man’s conquest of space. It is a triumph frequently achieved by sacrificing an essential ingredient of existence, namely, time. In technical civilization, we expend time to gain space. To enhance our power in the world of space is our main objective.

Yet to have more does not mean to be more. The power we attain in the world of space terminates abruptly at the borderline of time. But time is the heart of existence.

To gain control of the world of space is certainly one of our tasks. The danger begins when in gaining power in the realm of space we forfeit all aspirations in the realm of time. There is a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord. Life goes wrong when the control of space, the acquisition of things of space, becomes our sole concern.

Nothing is more useful than power, nothing more frightful. We have often suffered from degradation by poverty, now we are threatened with degradation through power. There is happiness in the love of labor, there is misery in the love of gain. Many hearts and pitchers are broken at the fountain of profit. Selling himself into slavery to things, man becomes a utensil that is broken at the fountain.
Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath

Reflection – Well, we had Orthodox week two weeks ago, and Protestant week last week, so since I’m on an ecumenical/interfaith roll here, I thought this week could be Jewish week at TTP. I have long cherished the writings of Rabbi Heschel, and in particular this luminous little book on the Jewish Sabbath and its theological meaning. So I want to stay this week in this book, which is short on word count but long on meaning and depth.

First published in 1951, this book has lost none of its relevance. Technological mastery and the loss of time, the crowding in of ‘space’ and its exigencies, its demands, into the realm of sacred time, has only accelerated in the ensuing decades.

We are ‘busy’ people. Busy, busy, busy. There is a frenetic pace to life in 2014 that has only been augmented by technology. Every moment we do not spend working, we spend plugged into the devices our labors have purchased for us. Economic life—life measured by outputs, productivity, metrics—is increasingly the only life people know.

And the economic model, the model of the market, which has its proper place and its own limited goodness, can be imported into places where it has no business, where it can do no good. We import economic models into relationships, even the most intimate and sacred relationships of marriage and family. There has been a certain amount of internet chatter lately about ‘marrying up’ vs. ‘marrying down’ – as if marriage is really a business merger where the balance of power lies solely in who wields the greater share of economic power.

The economic model can extend into the whole of life, everything person and every thing evaluated by the value he/she/it brings me and the cost he/she/it exacts from me. Life is about power, and mastery, and extracting maximum value from minimum cost—and we have no idea whatsoever what the real and devastating cost we pay by extending the values of the market into the realm of human love and friendship.

There has to be something carved out of life that is not governed by the ceaseless and heartless demands of economic reality, the essentially impersonal profit-driven world of the market. Now I repeat – the market is not evil, and profits are not evil. Goods and services must be exchanged somehow, and if they are not exchanged at a profit, there can be no sustainable business model or viable way of life.
But this very business of business and profit and the market is precisely for the sake of what is not the market. People work hard to provide a living for themselves, and, precisely, for their families. And it is the home, the family, the sacred enclosure of the domestic, that is meant to be the place where the market ends and communion begins.

And so, as Heschel will develop, there is this beautiful reality of the Sabbath—in Judaism, of course the seventh day, with its magnificent domestic rituals and rest—but for us non-Jews something we need to touch and grasp hold of, something that perhaps we can enter on a Sunday, or at any rate somehow. A time, a sacred time spent in a sacred space that is not governed by the slavery of the profit motive. And this is what we will be looking at this week.