The Taser's Edge

Tuesday Reading Roundup

Just Kids by Patti Smith
(Ecco, 2010)

I can’t say I love love love Patti Smith (because I don’t know her like that), but I can say that I have long known how brilliant an album 1975’s Horses is.  Last year, her memoir, which focuses on being young and in love with Robert Mapplethorpe (someone about whom I sadly admit all I know is his reputation, which does not involve being in love with Smith or any other woman), won the National Book Award among other biggies.  It was a book that I really looked forward to reading, but knew that I wouldn’t because it would be impossible to get from the public library for months, and then something else would come along.  Thankfully, C to the rescue.  Currently it’s my read-right-before-bed book (a mistake?) because I made the dumb commitment – which I don’t regret – for the first three months of the year to read 45 minutes of theology and also blog every day, and I run out of time (what with honoring my non-commitment to finish watching 30 Rock: Season Four on Netflix streaming and then restarting the series with the first season again).

Reading it does make me want to check out a couple interviews I missed last year around the book’s publication.  Patti Smith is right in the spot (white, 55+) where Terry Gross can actually do a great interview.  (In Gross’ defense, even her nervous-laughter-filled Jay-Z interview from last year is great in transcript form.)

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

At this point, I’m working hard at finishing this book so I can return it to its owner, having a hard time thinking through the non-Christian theology (not an accusation, as I think the author would agree that it’s not Christian in any traditional sense), having an even harder time not seeing the book’s shortcomings when compared to Merton (again, I don’t think Bruteau would disagree with that comment), but still…getting a lot out of this book.  It’s good to hear good questions, even when you don’t agree totally with the questioner’s questions.  This might be such a case, even though I think it really is a very good book.

Zen and the Birds of Appetite
by Thomas Merton

As you can tell from Sunday’s post, Merton is reminding me why I love him so.  This is seriously one of those books that you would miss everything if you just buzzed through it (like the terrible thing that happened in Church History at Duke when I was assigned Teresa’s Interior Castle).  My rule of thumb for knowing I really love a poem is that on first reading it, I get to the end, pause, and then read it again (and again and again and again); something in a good poem just says ‘Stop! Pay attention!’, and I do, and I am rewarded.  That is the experience of reading this book.  You cannot read it too slowly.  You cannot read a page too many times.  I will finish this book, and I will be back for seconds.  That must be the birds of appetite Merton’s on about.  (And now I really hope that the 75% of the book I have already read doesn’t have me eating these virtual letters.)

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.

The Artist and The Contemplative

The Sartorialist is the fashion blog of Scott Schuman, possibly the most-read fashion blog in the whole shootin’ match.  Recently somebody at Intel thought it would be a good idea to do a brief documentary about him, and here is that product:

As I watched, I thought about a couple things:

1.) Schuman’s art requires leisure, 4-5 hours a day walking and attempting to be present to New York, Milan, London, or (most recently) Seoul, looking for 1-2 pictures.  And here’s the jump, if you’ll make it with me: contemplative prayer and good art both require a similar kind of leisure, a similar kind of attention, and a similar cultivation of awareness over time.  (Think Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus, just ‘wasting’ her time.)  Maybe it’s obvious that leisure is required for contemplative prayer, but I never thought about just how important it was until Beatrice Bruteau opened her Radical Optimism with a full chapter devoted to leisure.  [Side note: she also says that study requires a similar level of leisure, which would also connect to the best study being the most creative study.]

2) Schuman’s daily process is a long search, but it is nonetheless fully expectant, and it has the right expectations, which the artist has learned over time.  Contemplation too is shaped by a similar expectancy, one which changes and matures over time and through experience.  Just as Schuman doesn’t expect or look for a brilliant photo on every street he walks, so the contemplative doesn’t expect life-changing insight 10 times a week, but this does not at all mean that there is not joyous and hopeful expectation on the part of both artist and contemplative.

Personally, I see a connection between the cultivation of a healthy life, an aware life, and a creative life.  Doing a year-long chaplaincy residency beat the crap out of me, but the twin practices which seemed to be most helpful for my holistic wellness are mindfulness/contemplation (not to claim the two are synonymous) and creative outlet.

The Return of Tuesday Reading Roundup

Tuesday Reading Roundup used to be a beloved staple, then it screwed with my tags because things returned too often, and then it disappeared.  But in the interest of blogging more often in the New Year, it makes sense to have a returning feature or two.  This time round, I want to make sure that I’m only naming books which I’m actively reading (although the “Current and Recent Readings” tab will help you keep track of books I’m halfway through).

Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt
by Anne Rice (Knopf, 2005)

Anne Rice famously wrote lots of vampire novels, then converted (returned?) to Christianity, then left organized religion again.  But beginning in that return to Christianity, she started a series of novels on Jesus Christ, and this is the first of them (with a second published and a third apparently still in the works).

Thus far, it’s a fascinating take.  Rice pulls on all the sources, from the apocryphal Gospels to the accepted Gospels to historical Jesus stuff.  No, it’s not concerned with a historically orthodox Christ, but it thus far has a lot going for it in terms of recreating a time and a place and a man who is indeed both human and God.

Also, I’m surprised to say (perhaps unfairly, as I’ve never read anything about Lestat) that it’s really well written thus far.



by John Cassian (this translation)

John Cassian is considered a Church Father both in Eastern and Western Christianity, although he was accused of being a semi-Pelagianist (as West will continually accuse East).  In Conferences, he relates dialogues with various Desert Fathers, and it’s pretty fantastic.  I would offer a quote, but I don’t have one at hand.







Radical Optimism: Practical Spirituality in an Uncertain World
by Beatrice Bruteau (Sentient, 2002)

Froofy title with froofy cover art indeed.  The cover to the left is from a different edition.  This book was recommended to me by my spiritual director after I talked to her about a recent (2 years+) trend in the work of the Holy Spirit in me, of God and I working together to cultivate joy.

The title becomes less froofy when you realize that Bruteau means both Radical and Optimism in their literal senses.  Radical, like radish, means rooted.  Optimism has to do with our vision.  So, we are rooted in the ground of reality (‘in Him we live and move and have our being‘), and when we have true sight, that is what we see.

Bruteau approaches this from her own background which is an integration of the sciences, mathematics, philosophy, and Eastern and Western religions.

So far, so good, but, yes, it still might turn out to be quite froofy.