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.

Praying the Psalms

On June 1, I will begin my CPE residency at Duke Hospital.  Until then, I have very little to do, but as my mind likes to begin eating itself when left idle, I have been working at creating a schedule for myself for the sake of structure (which is just as healthy for 25-year-olds as for 5-year-olds).

So how do you prepare for a CPE residency, an experience which by definition is something which you can’t prepare for?  I decided that I would try to begin learning the Psalms.  Not memorizing the Psalter yet, but perhaps compiling a memory bank of what Psalms speak to particular situations.  Right now, I have a scrap of paper in my Bible marking the beginning of Psalms, covered with lists of Psalms, verses from Isaiah, and verses from Revelation to be read at people’s bedsides.

But I also thought I would seek out some expert opinion.  I’ve assembled this crack team to begin with:

1. Praying the Psalms by Thomas Merton–Words cannot express how much I love Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain, a book of which I own multiple copies, because I buy it every time I see it in order to give it away.  A modern saint’s spiritual autobiography seems much healthier to collect than, say, The Catcher in the Rye.  But back to Praying the Psalms, I just read the very brief  book this morning.  In it Merton speaks of how we as Christians need to move through three stages of relating to the Psalms: (1) knowing that the Psalms are good prayers but not really doing anything about it, (2) beginning to pray the Psalms out of that conviction, and (3) “entering into the Psalms,” where we live in their world and they are brought into our hearts as part of the normal furniture.

Wonderful writing as always.  Regarding why the Church still uses the Psalms: “The Church indeed likes what is old, not because it is old but rather because it is ‘young'” (7).  Yes!

And regarding why the Psalms are so important to our prayer lives: “There is no aspect of the interior life, no kind of religious experience, no spiritual need of [hu]man[ity] that is not depicted and lived out in the Psalms.  But we cannot lay hands on these riches unless we are willing to work for them” (44).

And then there are the other three as-yet-unread ones (each of which linked to more info):

Lewis is Christianity's "Stairway to Heaven." Wonderful work but frustratingly popular for my snobbish ways.

Since this is the best edition, I bought it even though I already own a dog-eared copy of Life Together.

Winner of 1985's coveted Hottest New Cover Art Award.