The Taser's Edge

Tuesday Reading Roundup

by John Cassian

This will become clearer below (as I talk about Bruteau), but I think I read Cassian in a different way than I once would have.  This week, in one section he began talking about God’s abandonment.  His conception is that God is always for our growth.  Sometimes that means God is incredibly, tangibly present, and sometimes God is absent.

I’m thinking through this even as I write this, as I once would have instantly accepted it.  And yet, now I think more in terms of God being open to us and God being hidden.  That is, we feel God’s absence, yes, but it doesn’t mean that God has left us.  My question–does God draw back in reality or in tangibility?  For me, Jesus going to the grave and Hell for us says that God doesn’t draw back in reality (not to mention Psalm 139).

My spiritual director has helped me find useful the Ignatian (whether the man‘s or his followers’, I do not know) language of consolation and desolation to describe the two realities of being ‘abandoned’ and of being swept into God’s arms.  I would think that Ignatius knows Cassian, knows the experience of ‘abandonment’, and then perhaps is describing the same experience with the word ‘desolation,’ which to me is a more useful and accurate word.

Clear as dirt?  Moving on…

Radical Optimism: Practical Spirituality in an Uncertain World
by Beatrice Bruteau

Last week, I wrote the word ‘froofy’ several times while writing about my apprehensions about this book.  This week, Bruteau’s thoughts are all through my thoughts (including at least two blog posts).  While she and I have many differences in our understanding of the world (theology, metaphysics, the nature of evil, for three), I find that I can learn a lot from her if I hold those things at arm’s length for a bit.  Here’s one wonderful nugget (from p. 54):

Meditation is not a duty to be performed; it is not just a learning device whereby we get ideas; it is not a soothing routine whereby we put ourselves into an altered state of consciousness, or a way of eliciting material from the subconscious so that we can know our empirical personality better.  Meditation is a way of meeting God.  It is not a matter of thinking about someone who is absent.  It is engaging someone who is present, indeed supremely present.  It is the realization of this presence that is the main point of meditation.

Although I like and have found personally helpful the school of mindfulness meditation put forth by Kabat-Zinn and others, and while I got a lot out of David Lynch’s (yes, that one) book on Transcendental Meditation, Catching the Big Fish, Bruteau is right, and they are wrong.

For this reason, when I did a scant handful of worship services at Duke Hospital, we always started with the heading “Becoming Present to God’s Presence.”

But to mention one thing that gets under my skin, Bruteau is concerned with people finding out who they truly are, without all the external descriptors.  Yet here is a problem within Christianity, as opposed to much of Buddhism and Hinduism: in Christianity, we are not ultimately defined by those external factors, and yet our true reality is also as individuals, not as collective or oneness.  How you find the right balance in describing what that means is beyond me, but Bruteau (to me) punts on the whole issue of what individuality means.

Zen and the Birds of Appetite
by Thomas Merton

Merton is one of my favorite authors.  He apparently personally came to dislike his still-bestselling spiritual autobiography, Seven Storey Mountain, but when I first read it, it was the best book I’d read for about two years (and I’ll give you a copy if you know me).  In the early 1960s Merton became well-known for his support for peace activism and the civil rights movement, and for his opposition to the Vietnam War.  And in the final years of his life, he began connecting with Asian contemplatives such as Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama.  Zen and the Birds of Appetite comes out of those connections, and was one of the final things he wrote, published in 1968, the year of his death.

Thus far, Merton is looking at Zen as something beyond Buddhism or Christianity, as the direct experience beyond words (or comprehension), and he is particularly drawing on the Christian mystic Meister Eckhart.

I will say that it’s very helpful to read Merton and Bruteau side-by-side.  Merton tends to be one of those who (like Bonhoeffer, Lewis, and much longer ago, Augustine, as well as Jesus, too) is claimed by certain spiritual/theological/religious/moral camps to the exclusion of others.  On the one hand, Merton is not an American evangelical Protestant.  And on the other hand, he is not a non-particular spiritual seeker.  (To a great extent, this is to say that he is neither a conservative Protestant nor a liberal Protestant, which makes sense because he was not a Protestant at all.)  I am certain Bruteau has read more Merton than I, yet it is still helpful to read Merton in Merton’s own words while reading another spiritual teacher who stands in Merton’s shadow.

Pastoral Care is a Waste of Time

One of my favorite definitions of prayer is “wasting time with God.”  As someone who has been highly ‘productive’ all my life, producing excellence of all kinds and being praised for it, constantly trying to produce self-betterment in my own self, defining prayer as ‘wasting time’ militates against things within me which I think are harmful.  Namely, the harm is utilitizing all of life, my relationships, my faith, and ultimately myself.  (As an instance of this move from ‘doing’ to ‘being,’ which I think is very tied to my ‘utilitizing vs. wasting time’, Jon Kabat-Zinn’s mindfulness books became helpful to me when I began to see mindfulness as living into the image of the I AM which is being renewed in me, rather than the I DO, which is the demonic desire for self-sufficiency.)

Over the past few weeks I have been exploring a number of different pastoral care definitions, allowing metaphors and images to come into my mind freely, and then exploring them to see what they hold.  Among these metaphors has been the idea of pastoral care as ‘wasting time with people.’  What I do in the patient’s room is essentially non-productive.  I am not there to fix people’s problems, even though sometimes that happens.  Although patients’ bodies are in the hospital presented as medical problems to be medically solved, as a spiritual caregiver I cannot see my patients as problems to be solved or fixed.  I am not the Fixer, and they are not Problems.  When I turn patients into problems, then I have turned human beings into objects.  Our patients and our staff and their visitors are human beings and I am a human being, and somehow God comes into both of us, and we share in God together, knowing grace and love, hope and healing.

Choosing to waste time with patients, to not eye the clock, to not plan too far ahead, to live together for a few moments, and to invite one another (and yes, often most of the invitation will be my work) to rest in safety (God’s safe rest)—this is pastoral care.  Seeing pastoral care in this way works against the way that the world works (or at least the way American culture, American medicine, Duke Hospital, and the rest of the 21st century industrialized world work).  For me to be a caregiver with integrity, this is important, because it recognizes that the work we do is not our own work but God’s.  This is important theologically.  We must be wary of pastoral care definitions which cast us in the role of Jesus or the Biblical saint while casting the patient in the role of the one wholly receiving of the grace which God channels through us.  The fault (not to say there are not strengths as well) of incarnational understandings of pastoral care is that we are not Jesus, and that we are not called to be Jesus.  In fact, when Jesus speaks of our care of the sick in Matthew 25, it is not the caregiver but the one who receives care in whom we are told to see Jesus.

This recognition that our work is ultimately not ours—that patients are not Problems and that we are not Fixers—is also important psychologically.  If all rests on me, then I cannot help but be anxious.  If all rests on me, then it sets up for my goal a ridiculous and impossible perfection of production.  But if the patient is where I see Jesus rather than a problem to be fixed, then my visit to a person becomes a prayer to God.  “Wasting time with God” and “wasting time with the patient” can no longer be so distinct, and in order to be with God or the patient well, I must stop trying so hard to do.  Theologically, mentally, spiritually, psychologically, and ethically, asking myself the question, “How did you do on that visit?  How were you Jesus to the patient?” is problematic.  The question I should be asking: “What was the color and depth of your being with the patient and her visitors on that visit?  How did you see Jesus in them?”

Lenten Devotion 1.2.2–Letting Go
March 7, 2009, 4:49 pm
Filed under: Bible, Life, Religion, Spirituality, Theology | Tags: , , ,

Letting Go: I don’t particularly like this terminology.  Schmemann talks about the possibility for a poverty of meaning and experience of God in Lent when we talk in terms of ‘taking up’ and ‘letting go’, because we can become so focused on the practices themselves that sight is lost of the reason for those practices.    Hopefully I’m avoiding that process, as I’m truly interested in being obedient to God in my Lenten disciplines.

1. Control–Giving up control.  What does that mean?  For me, the explanation is connected to how taking up spiritual disciplines is more natural to me than giving things up.  In my mind, taking control pushes away the feelings of chaos and anxiety and fear that I sometimes experience, but I think control is often an illusion which we buy into to make us feel more secure.  Disciplines come fairly easy to me, at least in comparison to most other Christians that I talk to.  But control quickly becomes not the fruit of the Spirit named as ‘self-control’ but the desire to control all kinds of circumstances which are beyond my control or my charge.  In short, ‘control’ is a type of worry.  I don’t need to worry, and I certainly don’t need or want to deal with more anxiety in my life.  So screw you, physiological, genetic, hereditary, etc. dispositions to anxiety.  I’m not in control, and that’s a good thing.

The practice of letting go of control is a practice of mindfulness, a constant, gentle, internal release of my claim over other things and even over myself.  Through this I come to see how little control I really hold.  This is not a fearful realization of abandonment to Fate (as much as it seems that it might be), but a realization of freedom, because a loving, redeeming God is cradling my whimpering, helpless form to his breast.  For me, the thought of being in charge, of being responsible for all those things around me is fear-inducing, even panic-inducing.  Also, I waste so much time, along with physical and psychic energy, on trying to control things that I both cannot control and which do not actually matter (trying to be on time to church, for one instance).  Finally, giving up control does battle with my perfectionism, and that battle is almost always a good thing, when done right.

2. Eating meat on M-W-F.  Finally, something that’s tangible.  It’s surprising, considering how little meat I usually eat (and how often my acquaintances assume I’m a vegetarian), how often this has already gotten in my way.  I’m just now thinking about meals on this coming Friday for Anglican Missional Pastor and whether there will be vegetarian options.  For all those vegetarians out there who have shown up at church potlucks and other social get-togethers only to have to skip every dish but the macaroni and cheese and the dessert tables, sorry I’m complaining.  But I do actually wonder if it would have been easier to just say “no meat for Lent.”  That way, I wouldn’t have to remember what day of the week it is.  I am certain that I will forget soon.  Also, I never craved meat before, and now I do.  On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.

Please converse with me on all this.  And have a happy solemn Lent!.