Before the cares and concerns of the workweek again come to consume me, I wanted to jot down a few notes about how fruitful this weekend was in terms of progress with my faith. I finally got around to watching a movie I’d been wanting to see–The Book of Eli–and watched it all the way through. I’d caught the ending a few months ago, and was looking forward to seeing the entire movie. I was disappointed that this blind man, guided only by faith, ended up relying on the usual heavily stylized “Matrix/Tarantino” kind of fighting to get him out of sticky situations with bad guys. It was certainly comforting to see even a graphic novel-style nod to the power of the Bible, but I think the creators went completely for the kinds of violent language we’ve come to expect in movies when they had the option to do so much more with this character. To be for sure, the Bible is full of its warriors who slaughter their enemies by the tens of thousands, but it also has its share of prophets and healers who walk and live in the desert by true faith, and not by sight.
I think such a simple phrase, while its probably been run into the brains of most of us Christians to the point of cliche, can still carry so much awesome power in it, once you start to think about all the ways that you are still walking by sight and not by faith. Indeed, the success and lifeblood of most of our culture now seems to depend upon people moving and living by sight, and not by faith. We still cherish those feel-good, Hallmark moments where the disabled kid is loved by his peers in spite of all that makes him different, because “it’s what’s on the inside that counts.” But, at the end of the day, we almost exclusively gravitate toward visual cues, in our infatuation with beautiful pop culture icons, our deference toward the better looking people in the office, and our insistence on looking for signs of the times from the world itself, rather than from the deep wellspring of the kingdom within each of us.
I can’t speak for how society can possibly change its steady and sure course toward becoming one that is completely guided by sight, but for me, it must become an imperative to examine every situation with an askance as to whether I am really letting that which I see with only my eyes guide me, or if I’m injecting my faith into the situation so completely as to allow my faith to guide me.
I also got around to reading the much talked about interview with the Pope in its entirety. It made me extremely happy. One word that I picked up from it, “discernment”, is a lot like the phrase “guided by faith and not by sight.” In my upbringing, I heard it all the time. Not exactly in the Jesuit sense of “discernment of spirits”, but along the lines of making decisions after much prayer and discernment. It’s one of those phrases that you hear so much that you think you know everything about what it means, and so you don’t really need to bother examining it any more than you already have. Except, I came to realize that I probably don’t know everything about what it means. If a word or phrase is one that is highly valuable to the point of being almost mandatory for living well, and you aren’t putting it into practice each day of your life, then you probably don’t really know everything about what it means.
So, I read up a lot on these things.
I watched myself lapse into my angry behavior on a few occasions with the more clear, objective eyes of the diagnosing physician. My tendency to make every little social misstep or perceived slight from others into an entire complaint against how flawed society is–I could see it rising up and spilling out of me before I could stop it. The bad news is that I didn’t stop it, but the good news is that I could see just how immature I was being while it was happening.
The congratulations I have for myself are none. The gratitude I have for God showing me things in a different sort of light is abundant.
I’ve never confessed this to anyone, but I’ve often found myself agreeing with the Pope (going back ten years or more) than not. On matters such as war, the death penalty, abortion and homosexuality, I tend to align more with the decrees from the Vatican when I’m not hanging on to my old, misguided persona who cherishes the thought of being ultra PC and well-liked by those who are sophisticated and urbane. Which is to say that I’m often at odds with conservatives as well. I was very much against going into Iraq in 2003, even as everyone else was ready to jump on that bandwagon. I find that both the death penalty and abortion are almost never good choices made by those who decide to implement them.
I think that the church, before this Pope, has been excessively hard on gays. While never directly hateful toward them as people, the constant condemnation of their lifestyle makes it easy for young people who are gay or have gay friends to decide that the church is not for them, and gives perpetrators of hate crimes excuses to do what they do. However, I also think that most gay people have no interest in examining why they are the way they are, and considering a different approach other than succumbing to what our mainstream liberal culture has decided is best for them. Like any other subject that is heavily debated, the issue becomes one where either side decides to work with cherry-picked information to advance their own agenda without listening to the other side in open dialogue.
Gay people report going through periods of adolescence where they wished they were straight, and could change to be “normal” like everyone else. It seems to me that with a lot of people who have embraced the homosexual identity and lifestyle, that if science were to discover a means of slightly altering their brain chemistry or DNA which caused them to become straight in their sexual preferences, they would denounce such a thing, and decry it to be an attack on their freedoms.
Like so many other polarizing issues in today’s world, both “sides” have become so entrenched in what they think to be the absolute truth about the issue, that neither is willing to participate in open dialogue with the other. What I see in the new Pope’s words is at least the effort to do otherwise. Whether or not any people in the gay community will come forth and be willing to meet the church somewhere in the middle with an open dialogue remains to be seen. I certainly don’t think that the Catholic church will ever take the position of welcoming gays completely, and marrying them and making openly gay men clergy (even allowing their partners to live with them), but it could and should become willing to sit down and have a dialogue with disenfranchised gay Catholics.
The problem though, is that when someone on one side of an issue makes an attempt to meet the other side in the middle, they are pounced upon by extremists of their side, and met with contempt by the other side for not meeting them all the way. This is, at least, where the media has chosen to emphasize the story. You have to dig deep to find stories of opposing viewpoints in common dialogue with each other–and not the superficial garbage of cable news television that passes itself off as a conversation.
The change in weather seems to have brought on a bunch of memories of our vacation to Rome last year. It’s been my life story to get more out of a vacation or some other novel activity long after it has transpired. My entire fourth grade school year was spent pretty much stuck in a state of yearning to go back to Florida. I’d go grab the children’s “F” encyclopedia almost every single day off of the shelf in the back of the room, and look at the three pictures of Florida from twenty years before I was born.
The coolness of weather, has excited memories of a vacation that I didn’t spend a lot of time mentally unpacking from, and caused me to miss walking around in the city, and caused me to pull out all of my Catholic writers and Roman art/history books again. I recognize that a lot of it is simply escapism. I’m growing weary of my Rubicon reality, with no end of it in sight. I live in a town where you are anathema if you don’t pay attention to football.
I’m tired of thinking about it. It makes me depressed to consider what I’m immersed in. I don’t understand how or why so many people appear to have settled happily for “this is all there is to life, and life is good.” No more study of new subjects, unless something pops in front of them on the television. No attempt to understand the historical context of why the world has the problems it does. No more asking the really hard questions about death, and God and evil. No need for art, and no use for any music that they don’t hear on the local pop country station. The world outside of Rubicon is best left to be a caricature of evil, godless individuals who are constantly trying to come to our country to kill us. Or, if they are godless individuals already in our country, they are busy trying to spread their poison from LA and NYC to our children.
I was pretty sick of a lot of those godless individuals when I lived in Austin, and most of them were absorbed in the world in front of their own noses as well. Sure, they travelled outside of the U.S. more, and read a few more books each year. But, for the most part, they too were content to accept that life is what it is, without looking any deeper or farther.
I go and get up on my high horse, reading books about great men of wisdom and their teachings. I study up on the Bible, and read about the life of St. Ignatius. Then, I spend a few hours each morning thinking about how I really deserve to be living in a big city among elite, highly educated Christians, instead of living among the mostly rural folk like I do. Finally, I crash and burn, descending back into some of my worst vices, until my terrible sins appear to me in dreams. I have impure thoughts and I act on them in a solo fashion. I lose my temper at every single driver around me on the road.
Then, I wake up the next morning, begging to God to please tell me why I’m continuing to run this vicious cycle. I open a book about the Desert Fathers, and the chapter is on humility.
There is very little about me that you could call humble anymore. At one time, I was a humble kid, but I hated it. I think so much of me that was good and Christian by default–like not lashing out in anger and turning the other cheek–was there from the kind of programming my mother put into me. Underneath my autopilot way of reacting to social situations in a humble fashion was an enormous urge to do as everyone around me was doing (and urging me to do as well). Why aren’t you defending yourself? Stand up! Be a man!
I stumbled upon some show on PBS last night about a metalsmith who was trying to recreate a Medieval sword. The glowing orange steel looked to be an impossible brick that couldn’t possibly be good for anything except perhaps the head of a sledge. It took him an entire day’s work and then some to soften the steel into something he could shape into a sword, but he ran the risk of shattering the steel with every blow.
My adult life has been a fire that has sorely tested me and changed my mettle.
I’m like that sword-in-progress, constantly on the verge of shattering, but most definitely not able to go back to the unformed brick I was before. Whether I like it or not, I have to submit each day to the ways that God has chosen to shape and form me, and contend with the fact that I am still full of impurities like the slag that was yet to be pounded out of the steel.
During my years of work at the non-profit, I was humble in a contrived sort of way. I had already slipped out of the shell of my humble youth–the one that was a gift from my mother and one that I’d chosen to reject. In those years, I was trying to force myself back into being a pretend naive, humble boy, and it ended badly. This is because I was secretly full of ambition and pride. I wanted desperately to make a name for myself at something, but possessed an astonishing lack of clarity for how politics within the nonprofit organization (and the non profit community in general) really worked. Like every other human-created system, the nonprofit was going to see the completely ambitious rise to the top. Anyone possessing a modicum of humility and willingness to put aside their pride was going to find themselves struggling at an inferior post.
For some reason, I’d gotten it into my head that things would be different at the nonprofit than they were with the political campaign or with my previous, small-company employer. Within the nothing of a campaign I worked on, you still met endless groups of people who didn’t care about social or environmental issues as motivation to support the candidate–they simply wanted a little fiefdom in their county that they could lord over the other members of their party, and more than a few expected that in the remote chance the candidate got elected, she would do favors for them when she got to Washington.
The nonprofit, and its surrounding community of nonprofit careerists, was no different. If you wanted to get somewhere in the nonprofit world, you self promoted every chance you could, and paused as little as was required to pay lip service to the charity you actually served. If you happened to find yourself at a large enough nonprofit that could support your need to travel and attend endless community schmoozing events, you generally set up your own little business within the non profit to showcase your skills and talents. Ideas like serving the greater good, and being creative for the sake of the nonprofit’s success, were great ideas to mouth in conversation, but you made damn sure that every city council member and mayor in the county knew who you were. You took the time to build relationships with the media and wealthy donors or potential donors–not for the sake of the nonprofit’s success, but for the sake of your own career.
The fruits of such labors were pretty obvious when it was all said and done. If you took any one of these folks and were able to quanitatively measure how many dollars they raised or how many volunteering hours they spent in the community against how much name recognition they created for themselves, you would see that the exchange was almost 100% one-sided.
I was in this boat though I pretended not to be. I pretended that all of my efforts to make cool videos and website features were merely to advance the cause of the nonprofit and help them make more money. Deep inside, I was secretly seething with envy for every young college grad that slipped into the doors of my nonprofit and rose up the ranks past me. I was insanely jealous of the fellow getting all the attention and recognition in the papers.
I was trying so hard on the outside to be a humble person, and people who took me at face value either loved me or hated me for that. But, on the inside, I was secretly hoping that my faux humility would eventually reap great rewards.
So, I ended up eschewing all of the opportunities for greatness that God might have had in store for me as well as the ones that Man was making for me.
I had to take a step away from it all. I slowly wound down all of my volunteering engagements in Austin, as I went off to work for increasingly “bottom line” kinds of companies. I decided it was better to have no humility among people who were unapologetically careerist, than to have false humility among a bunch of people who pretended to be MLK or Gandhi. I slowly got more involved with my church.
Church, of course, can also contain the folks who just want to make a name for themselves. Some churches are like this, anyway. To find a church that is mostly full of truly humble people is like discovering gold. I think I found that church in Austin, but then we were Rubicon-bound within a year after we finally became members.
But, whether a church has the humble or it doesn’t, it still (in theory) has a book full of Jesus’ teachings about being humble.
I consider all the ways that my parents kept me from allowing me to become inescapibly immersed in the things of the world. While for so much of my adolescence and adult life, I’ve called it a hopeless curse as I try to get caught up on all the movies and TV shows I missed in childhood, I can see now that I was handed a true blessing. My mother tended to find evil in just about everything. I used to think so much of it was superstitious nonsense, but I’ve grown to have a more sophisticated perspective on what is worldly and what is spiritual.
There is nothing inherently evil in watching a worldly movie. It’s all in how you take the movie to heart, and how you choose to spend the rest of your weekend. I would argue that if you spend your entire weekend watching sporting events and obsessing over your fantasy sports team, you are probably tending more toward that which is evil than someone who watches one violent movie, is mildly entertained by it, and doesn’t think anything of it the rest of the weekend while they go out and help the poor, read their Bible, pray, and fellowship with other Christians. In other words, the way in which you spend your free time can ultimately be focused on either the things of God, or the ways of the world. You can even immerse yourself in an endless series of books that provide historical or philosophical insight into the Bible itself, and become more enamored and a part of the worldly ideas in those books–leaving God far behind.
And, in everything you do, you can keep God close or get as far away from him as possible. It’s all in your intent, and only you know the extent to which you are attempting to develop a deeper relationship with the Lord, or simply caught up in self-pleasing entertainment.
Sadly, I’m more likely to tend toward getting away from God when I start to read a bunch of Jesus books and then have neat insights and start to write them down. I start to write as if I’m some kind of preacher speaking to a huge congregation, and get caught up in the image of being adored by them as they hang on my every word. By the time I’m ready to return to work, I’m so full of myself and how important I am inside my own head, that I can’t bear to listen to anyone speak of their mundane problems. I’m so pumped up with pride that I can barely contain myself, and the notion of humility becomes nothing more than a wink and a nod–almost an ironic sort of endeavor.