Tuesday, May 29, 2007

With His Stripes We Are Healed

When I was in the first grade, I was part of a circle of a few students sitting in a circle while the teacher’s aide read a story to us. I recall that she described a character who had dark skin. I turned to the little girl who was sitting next to me—perhaps a Jamaican—and said, “Gee, just like you!” I was intrigued, pleased, and amazed that the story had immediately shown up in my real life.

To my surprise, the girl began to cry. I was puzzled and kept asking her what was wrong as she buried her face in her hands and her tears spilled over her fingers. The teacher came to her and asked her why she was crying, and she looked up and cried, “He said I had dark skin!”

My surprise turned to shock when the teacher became angry at me, hauled me over to my desk and made me sit down and cover my head with my hands, saying furiously, “Don’t you ever talk to anyone like that again!” I was completely at a loss as to what I had done wrong, but more than fifty years later I remember the injustice of how I was treated.

I know now that the little girl had already been hurt by racial prejudice, and she assumed that my observation was a slur—as did the teacher. I hadn’t hurt her, but someone else before me had done so, and my innocent comment touched the child’s hurt. She felt the pain another had caused her, and then assumed that I was causing the pain over again. I was punished for someone else’s sin.

The notion of racial prejudice has always been completely foreign to me. I simply have no understanding of it. I didn’t even know that it existed until I was probably about ten or twelve. This is because of my mother. One of the gifts she gave me was a deep appreciation of people of all kinds and the ability genuinely to rejoice in people of different cultures, races, ethnicities, economic and educational backgrounds, and all of the categories that are governed by “pc” today. I delighted in human variety as I enjoyed a garden rich with different flowers, each contributing to the beauty of the whole.

I didn’t even think to wonder until this very night where my mother acquired this worldview, which I now know was extremely unusual—especially considering that she was raised in the 1920s and ’30s in very privileged circumstances. But whatever its source it was so, and she passed that gift on to me.

I was raised in a mostly white neighborhood and went to a mostly white school—at least I think that was so because I didn’t think in terms like that—so whenever I saw someone whom, in a later era, we’d call a “minority”, I was excited. I wanted to learn about them and deepen my appreciation of the world in which I lived. (In my recent post, “Saturday”, I wrote about playing with one of the local Latino families in my neighborhood.)

Being falsely accused, tried, condemned, and punished as a six-year-old shocked me, but I don’t think it did me any harm. Though the memory stayed, it made it possible for me later to understand other people’s pain a little better and to empathize. Every now and again I am similarly falsely accused of something, and tried and condemned without a hearing, and there are times when I falsely accuse someone else—probably more often than I realize. Such an experience can be traumatic—sometimes incredibly so—but, sadly, it is part of human life in a fallen world. Even good Christian people can hurt others unjustly as they react to unresolved hurts that had been done to them.

At such times, the only peace, I think, that can be found in this life is to realize that we are entering into the experience that Jesus knew all his life and carries for us eternally. It is the meaning of his high priesthood. It is the grounding of one of the earliest Biblical passages used in the Church to preach who Jesus was. From Isaiah 53:3-5,

Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows,
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
Yet ours were the sufferings he was bearing,
ours the sorrows he was carrying;
the punishment reconciling us fell on him,
and with his stripes we are healed.

If we want to conform our lives to Jesus, and if we are truly dedicated to sanctity, will that not mean that sometimes we will have to be like him in bearing the sins of the world a little bit in our relationships with others—and that such a thing can contribute to the process of their healing? “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ,” counseled Saint Paul in Galatians 6:2. Bearing the burdens of others, though unjust by human measure, is fully consistent with “the law of Christ”.

Simon of Cyrene alone among all humans, literally “took up Jesus’ cross and followed him”. He was compelled to do so, but there are obscure indications in the New Testament that his family became believers. If that is so, his “carrying the cross” became his life’s greatest blessing. For the rest of us, we must carry the cross figuratively, spiritually. If even a six-year-old is compelled to do it, albeit unknowingly, God must be in it—saving, preserving, healing, working all to his good, anticipating the time when we and others shall stand healed and forgiven, and love covers all.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The Maze

A good fifteen or more years ago, there was a Family Fun Center a few miles away from my home. For me, its chief attraction was a complex maze that covered at least an acre, made of tall wooden walls that created corridors about four feet wide. The adventurer bought a ticket for $4.00 and was given a card with eight spaces on it. The spaces were to be filled with stamps that would be found at specific locations inside the bewildering turns of the maze. The goal was to enter the maze, find the eight stamps, and then locate the exit. There were time stamps at the entrance and the exit. The design of the maze was changed each month.

I was a regular patron. Over time I found that one could divide the denizens of the maze into three general categories: there was the guy who strode by me, his face livid, screaming, “I paid money to get ripped off!” There was a girl who strolled through, her eyes wandering around, murmuring, “I don’t know where I am, but this is fun.”

And there was me. I learned early on to bring in a clipboard with graph paper. I charted each passage so that I would not wander aimlessly, but could gradually create a map of the maze. Even if I didn’t know the way through, I knew where I was at all times so that I would not keep looking in the same place but was continually finding new corridors and could narrow the search so that I could find the eight stamps and then the exit.

Laughably, I noted that whether I wandered about by chance or graphed the maze, it took me about an hour to finish the game.

Once it occurred to me that the three attitudes toward traveling the maze were similar to people’s attitudes toward life. Wandering about aimlessly with either utter frustration and feeling cheated or having fun; and exercising a measure of control with a plan. I realized that life always has a lot of twists and turns and that we rarely can see very far ahead, but there are always blessings to be found. Sometimes we find those blessings by apparent chance and other times by a little planning for them, but they are always in there somewhere.

In 1984, a really ghastly but highly entertaining movie came out that later became a cult classic: “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension”. I saw it when it first hit the theaters, and remember laughing out loud at the immortal line that concluded a long address of purported wisdom by the heroic lead character, “So remember! —wherever you go, there you are!” A ridiculous bit of advice that is nonetheless subtle and profound. The Christian believer can extend it a bit to conclude that in all circumstances we must entrust all things to the hands and heart of God. Our efforts and our attitudes can have a lot of effect about what happens to us, but ultimately we simply must depend upon God.

Whether it’s personal trials, national crises, international unrest and uncertainty, apparent powerlessness in the face of the revisionist avalanche in the Church, we’ll get through. “With God nothing is impossible.” “Jesus is Lord.”

Sadly, the Family Fun Center with its maze was demolished several years ago. The Kingdom of God will never be demolished.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Treasure in a Ten Cent Book

In 1959, my grandparents moved to Morongo Valley, California, a small desert community about twenty miles north of Palm Springs. I turned eleven that summer, and was already a voracious reader of the Hardy Boys and other series books.

For the next decade, my family drove out on a bi-monthly basis to spend the weekend with the elderly couple. My part of the visits continued until I went off to seminary in 1970. In the 1960s, often the grandparents took us to various places in the community that had become the biggest part of their world. On one occasion more than forty years ago, we went into a thrift shop. It had the predictable wares for sale—inexpensive clothing on wire hangers strung across makeshift racks, sun-colored glass vases and bottles, costume jewelry, ragged paperback novels, mismatched pieces of silverware. I eased up to a rickety card table that was groaning under a stack of hardback books. On top was a dark red, jacketless volume with the “Grosset & Dunlap” imprint on the bottom of the spine. These were the publishers of the Hardy Boys and other series books. The title, in attractive, old fashioned lettering, read, Don Sturdy on the Desert of Mystery. It was the first time I learned that there were series that had been discontinued, and I can still remember the feeling of wonder that washed over me.

The book was a library discard. Someone had obviously donated it to the local branch since it bore a stamp that read “Morongo Branch County Library”, but the library might have disdained entering it into their system since there were no signs of a library envelope in the back or marks of the Dewey Decimal System in white ink on the spine. On the blank front endpaper was scrawled a large —10 in pencil. I laid down a dime at the cash register and the volume became mine. I wouldn’t buy another used series book for a quarter of a century and therefore had no inkling that with that purchase I began a serious series book collection.

I still own that book. It seemed old then, with its cloth covering somewhat frayed. At the time I found it, it was about forty years old; I have now owned it as long as that. More than likely my heirs will have to decide what to do with it at some future time, because I will not part with it willingly. It’s also of interest because, of the hundreds of these books I have read in the twenty years I’ve been collecting them, it’s the only one in which a character identifies himself as an Episcopalian.

Later I found another copy of the book, this time in better condition and with a dust jacket. For the first time I was able to see the evocative cover artwork, showing a really old-fashioned car under an unusual saffron sky. The story is set in 1920s Algeria.

In addition to the joy of collecting and reading the old series books, there is the equal value of the number of relationships I have developed with other collectors. The people in this group range in age from 10 to 92, is spread across the country from Maine to California with one or two overseas, and include a devout Roman Catholic and an atheist, a monarchist and an anarchist, a blue collar worker and a professional man, a priest, a college student, and a few retired people, men and women, single and married, wealthy and poor, and people who live in big cities and in very rural areas.

Why do we search through used bookstores and other repositories of old books—and now online—to look eagerly for volumes long out of print, written for children in the era of the first seventy years of the twentieth century?

When we consider the past into which series books can take us, there are two categories to keep in mind: general history and one’s personal past. Series books present us with a slice of Americana as generous as a slice of a home-baked, hot-out-the-wood-burning-oven cherry pie a child could gobble back on the farm in the 1930s. These are not textbooks of history lessons; they are windows opened by a time machine. Looking through the window is not work or study; it is an adventure.

It is not significant that the slice of history is an idealized one; idealized it may be, but it is an idealized slice of a real period—that is, the idealization is itself a real part of the past into which we may enter vicariously. We may enter an age in which the Hardy Boys can enjoy a lunch and two desserts, and pay with a two-dollar bill (What Happened At Midnight, p. 138). Young people can go camping without having to take out numerous permits and pay exorbitant fees to government officials or win a lottery of applicants to get permission to enter a “restricted” area. Official bureaucracy is barely mentioned. The constabulary is presented as either a company of inept buffoons (as in the early Hardys) or as providing desperately-needed and eagerly-welcomed assistance (as in Ken Holt). It is a simpler, purer, slower age, and the idealism is like putting a polish on real silver.

In addition to enjoying the Americana, the reader of these books also can enter his or her own personal past, when the books were first bought or borrowed, and read. Rocco Musemeche is a correspondent of mine in Louisiana who, at age 92, dearly loves the books of his childhood: the Rover Boys, books by Leo Edwards and Percy Keese Fitzhugh, and others. It was a great joy to me to locate for him a book he’d been seeking for SIXTY YEARS and send it to him as a surprise. I never told him it cost me over a hundred dollars. I figured that’s only about a dollar sixty-five a year.

I, who was a child in the 1950s, remember the original text Hardy Boys (they were hideously “updated” beginning in 1959); the early Tom Swift, Juniors; the Rick Brants; and the Tom Corbetts. These books are reminiscent to us baby-boomers of real times that we personally experienced; collecting them is a way of reclaiming those days and bringing them into our present. And collecting books of that era which we did not know at the time even makes it possible for us retroactively to extend the borders of our childhood. We can have shelves full of time machines which we can use at will to enter another world which, at the same time, is our world.

In addition to the adventures, the nostalgia, and the winsome wholesomeness of the stories, there is compelling attraction to the ordinary pleasures of life of another era. When some of the stories were updated to attract a modern audience, it was almost always this aspect of the story that was omitted. Today’s offerings are severely deficient, for they have little place for simple fun and emphasize action and fast-paced excitement over atmosphere and setting. Some of the best times in the old series book world are when nothing momentous is happening. This is what adds real flavor to the stories. The preparation of meals and the picnics in the Hardy Boys make us invisible participants not just in their adventures but in their lives. We are pleased and entertained and moved when, at the end of The Tower Treasure, the menu of the celebratory feast is laid out for us, and the iced-over bay is stirringly, poetically described in the opening pages of The Mystery of Cabin Island.

It is the same when the reader imagines the warm water of Chesapeake Bay closing over him as Rick and Scotty dive in Rick Brant’s The Flying Stingaree, the kerosene lanterns in Capwell Wyckoff’s The Mystery of Gaither Cove, or how the boys fix up the old landlocked shipwreck in Tom Slade At Temple Camp. It is the ordinariness of the characters’ lives that makes the books about them a source of extraordinary pleasure today. In the best series books, there is a delight in everything ordinary, which makes the adventure, the mystery-to-be-solved, the puzzle-to-be-unraveled so enjoyable.

Apart from emotional or sentimental attachment, there are probably three categories by which a series book can be judged: writing, plot, and artwork (which would include internal illustrations, frontispieces, and covers). It must be admitted that many series books, and some entire series, are severely deficient in one or more of these categories. There are many examples of poor writing, abominable plotting, and bad artwork. Yet I have found that rarely do series book aficionados agree on which is which. Agreement is much more obtainable on what is good. Almost everyone acknowledges the consistent excellence in the Ken Holt and Rick Brant series. Other than that, frequently what one person disparages another will love.

But even in the books and series that usually fall to the mediocre level or below, there are elements of greatness. Sometimes a dismal plot will feature passages of surpassing beauty. Excellent, atmospheric artwork may adorn a poorly-written adventure.

All of these features can be evocative of many things beyond the artwork, writing, or plot. Even if a portion of a story is an unillustrated, poorly written passage in a forgettable plot, sometimes the image or event itself stands out with signal clarity. Times of classic boyhood play which contributed little or nothing to the plot but much to the atmosphere of the early Hardy Boys, take us back to the late 1920s and early 1930s; the “can-do” attitude of Rick Brant and Tom Swift, Jr. are clearly the products of the 1950s. These essential but almost indefinable elements of series books are independent of plot, writing, or artwork.

And nearly each series includes books and moments of notable quality, almost painfully joyful to read in their presentation. Among these would be the winter scenes of the Hardy Boys’ The Mystery of Cabin Island, the severely cold wind of the city canyons in Ken Holt’s The Mystery of the Grinning Tiger, the sparkling South Pacific in Rick Brant’s The Phantom Shark, pristine Alaska in Don Sturdy Lost in Glacier Bay, the desiccated red sand in Tom Corbett’s Stand By For Mars!, the coolness of the air inside the cave in contrast to the fierce dry heat of the southwest desert in Troy Nesbit’s The Diamond Cave Mystery, the clinging fog on the rocky coast of Maine in Hal Keen’s The Clue at Skeleton Rocks, the dry and clear vistas of Tom Quest’s The Secret of Thunder Mountain, the grandeur of The X Bar X Boys Lost in the Rockies, rowing across an Atlantic bay at midnight in Capwell Wyckoff’s The Sea Runners’ Cache, young Roger Baxter and his younger brother painting a porch in Stranger in the Inlet, Dig Allen moving through passages illuminated by fireflies in the city of the Kohoolies in Trappers of Venus, and Tom Swift and Bud Barclay’s exploration of the bottom of the sea in Tom Swift and His Jetmarine.

In addition to the piercingly beautiful word-crafting in these volumes, there are the values which are taught in the stories as the characters address the challenges which confront them. Through the stories we see many powerful values held up as sterling examples for the formation of youth, such as loyalty to friends, self-reliance, a love of adventure, passion for justice, courage, humor, honesty, respect for others (frequently, but sadly not consistently, including people of other cultures, races, and economic level), ingenuity, love of nature, the necessity of cooperation, and other values of universal appeal and approval.

Thomas Merton, writing in 1948 about the work his grandfather was doing as a prominent employee for Grosset & Dunlap in 1923, said, “Pop worked for Grosset and Dunlap, publishers who specialized in cheap reprints of popular novels, and in children’s books of an adventurous cast. They were the ones who gave the world Tom Swift and all his electrical contrivances, together with the Rover Boys and Jerry Todd and all the rest. And there were several big showrooms full of these books, where I could go and curl up in a leather armchair and read all day without being disturbed until Pop came along to take me down to Childs and eat chicken à la king” (Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain, 1948). Reading this account puts most collectors into a transport, imagining the summer this eight-year old boy spent in what most people (including the employees at Grosset & Dunlap) would have viewed as merely a place of business, but which we now understand to have been the beginning of an era which would change our lives.

On June 11 I’ll be giving a talk at my local library on this subject. I did so about six years ago and, other than my friends, only four people came. I don’t know if I’ll fare any better this time, but as I visit bookstores in the past year or so, proprietors have told me that interest in these old books is growing a little among the younger generation. We’ll see.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

On a Scale of One to Ten

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your mind, and with all your soul, and with all your strength. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Love God. Love other people. Love yourself. These are the three loves. And it is love of self that makes possible love of others. It would have been a lot easier to understand, maybe, if Jesus had just said, “You shall love your neighbor.” Adding “as yourself” suddenly makes the whole thing rather complex.

Where to begin to muse on this? Reading The Way of the Heart by Henri Nouwen a week or so ago impressed me deeply. It is only 95 pages long but packed with wisdom. Nouwen writes about Solitude, Silence, and Prayer, and applies the teaching of the desert Fathers and Mothers of the third and fourth centuries to the timeless pursuit (and therefore today’s pursuit) of genuine Christian spiritual depth and maturity. Reading the book moved me because I can remember the time years ago when I had a spiritual life more like what Nouwen wrote about than what I have today. The slide from the depth I knew then was very gradual and imperceptible.

Yet I do not think that I have fallen by the wayside—not by any means. I have never given up my devotion to God or my desire to love others. In fact, they are more intense than ever. But over the past few years I have permitted a huge growth of “responsibility” to choke my “pressing on”. For a couple of years I have been on the edge of burnout, and I think that only my inner resolve has kept me going. I suspect that that resolve was really a subtle way of unconsciously, unwillingly keeping God at a distance and refusing to grow. What feels like a “slide from depth” is actually, I believe, a greater deepening—a deepening by destruction of incrustation and spiritual barnacles. I would never have taken on this course willingly, but I recognize it as an expression of divine mercy.

I thought that my blogposts on the theme of “office and person” have been about trying to learn to love others. I think now that they were mostly a way of revealing my burdens in a careful, controlled way while simultaneously preventing them from being lifted. I clutched the “old way” and made it really difficult for anyone to try to provide assistance—even as I wanted it, and even as others wanted to help. I held on to fear and refused love.

So I realize now that where I have fallen short most is in loving self. Probably that is the hardest thing for most people who are serious about following Jesus. I have certainly seen that spiritual ailment more often than any other. Yet I know that if one does not love self Christianly, one cannot love others very well either. In spite of lots of effort and best intentions, I have not really loved others very well recently—in part because I thought it would take “lots of effort”. How foolish. This must be at least part of what Jesus meant when he commanded, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” It is a complex mystery, but it is profoundly true.

If we believe that God is love and that he loves us, how can we possibly accept a state of not loving self? Can we fail to love that which God loves, and think it is okay? How logical it seems once one is in a place to see it anew.

Now in the early days of sabbatical, I am able to begin, a little, to see more clearly. I haven’t stopped trying to love others, but I have seen better how much I had failed to do so in the past couple of years because of failure to love self. Setting aside the responsibilities—many of them probably artificial to one extent or another—of parish leadership has cleared away much of what I had permitted to obscure The Way of the Heart. This is the very meaning of sabbatical—the seventh day “rest” from the six days of work. One might think that the people who were given the Ten Commandments would have found the fourth one, to keep the Sabbath day holy, the easiest one to observe. Who wouldn’t want a day of rest, for Pete’s sake??

Yet “rest” definitely does not mean just kicking back and snoozing. It means not letting the cares of life cover over one’s relationship with God—keeping one’s relationship with God paramount: the “greatest” commandment, remember, with which this blogpost began. The fourth Commandment is a specific form of the first of the Ten: You shall have no other gods before me. (In fact, every commandment is an extension of that one.) I had broken the fourth Commandment like a china plate dropped onto a brick floor.

I doubt that it was a “coincidence” that a few days into the sabbatical I was in the hospital—for the first time in forty years. A misdiagnosis of abdominal pains and a treatment that was the opposite of what was needed had me writhing on the floor in the middle of the night. “On a scale of one to ten, ten being the worst, what’s your pain level now?” they asked me more than once in the hospital. That night I am not ashamed to say that it was a ten.

A trip to the emergency room the following day, proper diagnosis and proper treatment followed by admittance, led me to an enforced rest. The experience was a little expression of my whole recent spiritual life. Now that I’m back home and recovering, I realize that now there is a crack in my former parameters—and, by George, I can see a little light.

I suspect it’ll be a good sabbatical.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Myles To Go

This is the first day of my sabbatical. Suddenly I am relieved of much responsibility for the care of the parish—and a road opens before me. How shall I walk? What do I seek?

More than thirty years ago, when I was newly-ordained and serving at Saint Clement’s Episcopal Church in San Clemente, California, I went to the nearby mission in San Juan Capistrano. It must have been a day off, and I loved touring the old ruins of the famous mission. There were several open courtyards, an old-fashioned fountain or two that fed pools covered in lily pads. Bougainvillea adorned many of the adobe walls and attractive promenades that were marked by open archways. The long, narrow chapel was hushed. Votive candles made pools of flickering light in the dim interior of the place where people had worshipped for two centuries.

Finally I visited the small shop. In a bookrack I found a paperback with the curious title, Mr. Blue. The author was a man Myles Connolly. I learned later that Connolly had been a screenwriter and producer in Hollywood in the 1940s-1960s.

I bought the book for 75 cents and still own it. There is an unexceptional line drawing on the front, showing a plain-looking man walking with his hands in his pockets, and a winsome likeness of the face of the Virgin Mary looking down on him.

On the back, it reads, “MR. BLUE will introduce you to a most extraordinary character indeed— Mr. Blue is different, so glorious different that dull-witted people would think him fantastic and even grotesque.” Already I was intrigued. “He is a mystic, he has visions, he dreams glorious projects, he flies kites, squanders a fortune, exults in brass bands, lives in a packing box, preaches God and love, and mercy... Blue is happy, hilariously and outrageously happy, so happy that he is an affront to the normal man who allows poverty or discomfort of business to make him unhappy.”

There’s more, but at that point I had already decided to buy the book. As I read it, I became entranced. Mr. Blue lived in a frenetic world (although the book was written in 1928) but nonetheless exuded joy like a hot oven on a winter day. His joy came from a holiness that was so bright it was contagious even when not understood or even recognized.

Mr. Blue was clearly a person who had answered a radical call, a call that is extended only to a few. Yet those who answer it remind the rest of us that we also have that call, though we are to live it out less outrageously: to be holy and to exude joy.

As the years unrolled, I shared the book with a few individuals and once with a reading group. It was not always received with the same appreciation I had for it. Just recently, however, I learned that a young woman in my parish named Joi (whom I sometimes call “Galadriel” since she reminds me of the elvin queen) is also devoted to Mr. Blue. She even informed me that Myles Connolly wrote other novels—four others that we have discovered so far. I acquired and read them all. One of them—Three Who Ventured—I found very inexpensively and much to my surprise and pleasure, saw that it had been signed by the author:

The introduction to one of his books informs the reader that Connolly is buried in Holy Cross Cemetery near the Los Angeles airport. On March 22 Joi and I decided to visit his grave. We found it without much effort.

Though the stories he wrote are different, they all play the same symphony: joy in holiness that can be found by ordinary people in normal life. Once found, however, the people are no longer ordinary. Janitors, playwrights, woodworkers, vagrants, grocery clerks, the “girl next door”, fighter pilots, freeloaders, alcoholics, plagiarists, politicians, rage-aholics, children, ... Whether they already know Jesus or come to know him in the course of the story, the light of faith, once lit, burns inextinguishably bright.

It gives me hope. On sabbatical I need desperately to divest myself of so many things that have “clung too closely” and that weighed me down like layers of lead. I know I have miles to go, but Myles Connolly is one among many who has held up the light of holiness to which I press on, forgetting all that lies behind.