Excerpt “The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction”

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Whim: Several times a year I get requests from people—usually students, but also friends and acquaintances, and even total strangers who have managed to find my email address—who want reading lists. “Dear Professor Jacobs, could you please give me your recommendations for what I should read this summer?” “Dear Professor, in your opinion what are the ten most important books that every educated person should read?” —that kind of thing. It’s clear that many people think in such terms: witness the popularity of the “One Thousand X You Should X Before You Die” books.

I never comply with these requests.

There are a few reasons why, and both of them are related to my views about the value and pleasure of reading. First, if people just want a list of the Greatest Hits of Western Literature (the Iliad, Dante’s Divine Comedy,HamletParadise LostThe Brothers Karamazov), they can get that anywhere. Indeed, they probably already know what items go on that list. So presumably they want something else, though it’s not always clear to me, and perhaps not to them, precisely what. My sense is that they want either books that have been particularly important to me, or else the kind of book that gets written up in magazines as a “forgotten masterpiece.” But there are many, many books that would fit into that latter category; and there is little reason to think that a book will be especially interesting or helpful to someone else just because I like it. Another person may not have my inclinations, interests, or personal needs.

Now, if people came to me and said, “Here’s a list of ten of my favorite books—can you think of some others I’m likely to enjoy?” I would be more likely—and better prepared—to answer. But that rarely happens, which is unfortunate: as much as I dislike the general, abstract, decontextualized lists that people tend to ask for, I love making recommendations to people I know and whose interests and tastes are familiar to me. Not long ago, as I (delightedly) worked my way through Neal Stephenson’s vast science-fiction opus Anathem, I kept thinking of a friend whose major passions are embodied in that book. So as soon as I finished the story I ran right out to my local Borders, bought a second copy, and delivered it to his door with an exhortation to read it as soon as was humanly possible. I wasn’t sure, of course, whether my friend would in the end like the book, but I knew he would be fascinated by much that happens in it, and, above all, I knew that we would have some enjoyable conversations about Stephenson’s story.

In such a context of friendship and mutual interest, the making of recommendations is a pleasure. Outside of that, it quickly becomes an onerous (and perhaps pointless) duty, and I don’t like mixing reading with onerous duties. Moreover, in many cases these requests have little to do with actually reading anything, but rather with having read — with the desire to say, Yes, now I can check that one off. In his marvelous memoirHunger of Memory, Richard Rodriguez describes how he once experienced this curious compulsion: “In the fourth grade,” he writes, “I embarked on a grandiose reading program.” He asked his teachers for lists of “important books,” which he then began dutifully to read, without having any sense of what made the books worthwhile.

I decided to record in a notebook the themes of the books that I read. After reading Robinson Crusoe, I wrote that its theme was “the value of learning to live by oneself.” When I completed Wuthering Heights, I noted the danger of “letting emotions get out of control.” Regarding these brief moralistic appraisals usually left me disheartened. I couldn’t believe that they were really the source of reading’s value. But for many more years, they constituted the only means I had of describing to myself the educational value of books.

It is true, of course, that adult readers are unlikely to be quite as naïve as the young Rodriguez was: the people who ask me for reading recommendations aren’t likely to write the themes of books in a notebook or on three-by-five cards. But the difference is not as great as one might suppose; the sense of obligation is much the same. Rodriguez’s experience of reading, say, Plato’s Republic might not be altogether alien to that of many of his elders: “I needed to keep looking at the book jacket comments to remind myself what the text was about. Nevertheless, …I looked at every word of the text. And by the time I reached the last word, I convinced myself that I had read The Republic. In a ceremony of great pride, I solemnly crossed Plato off my list.”

So one reason I usually decline to give reading recommendation is that I don’t want to encourage such habits of mind. But there’s a positive counterpart to this negative reason: my commitment to one dominant, overarching, nearly definitive principle for reading: Read at Whim. I learned this principle from the essayist and poet Randall Jarrell, who once met a scholar, a learned man and a critic, who commented that he read Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kim every year. Jarrell’s response:
The critic said that once a year he read Kim; and he read Kim, it was plain, at whim: not to teach, not to criticize, just for love — he read it, as Kipling wrote it, just because he liked to, wanted to, couldn’t help himself. To him it wasn’t a means to a lecture or article, it was an end; he read it not for anything he could get out of it, but for itself. And isn’t this what the work of art demands of us? The work of art, Rilke said, says to us always: You must change your life. It demands of us that we too see things as ends, not as means — that we too know them and love them for their own sake. This change is beyond us, perhaps, during the active, greedy, and powerful hours of our lives; but during the contemplative and sympathetic hours of our reading, our listening, our looking, it is surely within our power, if we choose to make it so, if we choose to let one part of our nature follow its natural desires. So I say to you, for a closing sentence, Read at whim! read at whim!

Now, it might seem at first that Jarrell contradicts himself in this passage: first he commends reading a book “for itself,” then he commends reading a book because it tells me that I must change my life. But the contradiction is only apparent. The book that simply demands to be read, for no good reason, is asking us to change our lives by putting aside good reasons. It’s asking us to stop calculating. It’s asking us to do something for the plain old delight and interest of it, not because we can justify its place on the mental spreadsheet or accounting ledger (like the one Benjamin Franklin kept) by which we tote up the value of our actions.

Early in How to Read a Book, Adler and Van Doren explain that reading is something one does primarily for information and understanding. But they then add, somewhat apologetically,

Of course, there is still another goal of reading, besides gaining information and understanding, and that is entertainment. However, this book will not be much concerned with reading for entertainment. It is the least demanding kind of reading, and it requires the least amount of effort. Furthermore, there are no rules for it. Everyone who knows how to read at all can read for entertainment if he wants to.

But Richard Rodriguez’s story makes me wonder if this is true. It seems to me that it is not so hard to absorb, and early in life, the idea that reading is so good for you, so loaded with vitamin-rich, high-fiber information and understanding, that it can’t possibly be pleasurable—that to read for the joy of it is fundamentally inappropriate.

So here’s what I say to my petitioners: for heaven’s sake, don’t turn reading into the intellectual equivalent of eating organic greens, or (shifting the metaphor slightly) some fearfully disciplined appointment with an elliptical trainer of the mind in which you count words or pages the way some people fix their attention on the “calories burned” readout—some assiduous and taxing exercise that allows you to look back on your conquest of Anna Karenina with grim satisfaction. How depressing. This kind of thing is not reading at all, but what C. S. Lewis once called “social and ethical hygiene.”

In Lewis’s view, which I largely share, the tendency to think of reading in these terms arises when critics, especially members of what Lewis called “the Vigilant school,” convince others that they are the proper guardians of reading and the proper judges of what kind of reading counts. When Lewis wrote those words, the leading Vigilant Critic in England was Lewis’s fellow Cambridge don, F. R. Leavis; in my place and time, no one is more Vigilant than Harold Bloom.

Some years back Bloom wrote a book called How to Read and Why, but it really should have been called What to Read and What to Think about It. It consists of many short chapters on novels, stories, and poems that belong to the Bloomian canon, chapters in which Bloom simply tells you what’s important about each work and what, in general terms, it means. Though there are a few brief sections of “summary observations” in which Bloom gives some supposedly practical advice, the advice of the book as a whole is simply “Do as I say and do as I do.”

Bloom has little patience for those who would expend their reading energy on non-masterpieces. If he does not have his own version of the Catholic Church’s Index of Prohibited Books, he can certainly sound like he does. Consider this: in 2003 he wrote that there are only four active American writers who “deserve our praise”: Philip Roth, Thomas Pynchon, Cormac McCarthy, and Don DeLillo. Of course, Bloom doesn’t actually suggest that less excellent writers should be forbidden — only that we’re wasting our time by reading them.

By way of illustration, we might reflect on Bloom’s notorious agonies about the popularity of Harry Potter. And we should begin by noting that this is not a subject on which Bloom is perfectly rational: for instance, he writes of his first encounter with J. K. Rowling, “As I read, I noticed that every time a character went for a walk, the author wrote instead that the character ‘stretched his legs.’ I began marking on the back of an envelope every time that phrase was repeated. I stopped only after I had marked the envelope several dozen times.” Now, how many dozen would be “several dozen”? Four at least, I would think. So Bloom is telling us that he counted fifty or more instances of the phrase “stretched his legs” in some unspecified part (half? two-thirds?) of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. This would require, not incidentally, that the book contain more than fifty instances of characters taking walks. But I will say no more, except to encourage the reader to make her own count, and to suggest that discounting Bloom’s tally by a factor of twenty might bring us closer to the mark.

Some among the ancient Athenians divided human beings into two groups, those who possess arete—virtue, excellence—and those who don’t, with the latter being fit for mockery or even slavery. When he makes proclamations about reading Bloom can sound rather Athenian. He straightforwardly doubts that people who read Harry Potter will be willing to, or could be made to, read anything else. “A host are reading it who simply will not read superior fare, such as Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows or the ‘Alice’ books of Lewis Carroll.” And in another context: “Harry Potter will not lead our children on to Kipling’s Just So Stories or his Jungle Book. It will not lead them to Thurber’s Thirteen Clocks or Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows or Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice.’” This is nothing if not definitive, and is therefore of a piece with his comment (to Newsweek magazine in 2007) about the enormous sales of the Potter series: “I know of no larger indictment of the world’s descent into subliteracy.”

Bloom uses the term “subliteracy” seriously: he doubts whether people who read the Harry Potter books are actually reading at all. Her readers are “non-readers,” and the primary benefit they derive from her books is to be “momentarily emancipated from their screens,” so that they “may not forget wholly the sensation of turning the pages of a book, any book.” But what good does that do, if they will never go on to “superior fare”?

“Presumably, if you cannot be persuaded to read anything better, Rowling will have to do”—but, really, “Is there any redeeming educational use to Rowling? …Why read, if what you read will not enrich mind or spirit or personality?” Indeed: why not just stick with the screens?—if that’s all you’re good for. If you lack arete.

(Bloom emphasized this point in am interview with Ray Suarez, in August of 2000, on the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. When Suarez commented, “So you have no truck with those who say, ‘well, at least they’re reading,’ whether speaking of adults or children,” Bloom replied, “Ray, they’re not really. Their eyes are passing over a page. They are turning the page. Their minds are being numbed by cliché. No demands are being made upon them. Nothing… Nothing is happening to them. They’re being schooled in what you might call unreality or the avoidance of reality.”)

A recent story in The Washington Post quotes a professor named Eric Williamson who declares of his students, “There is nary a student in the classroom ]—and this goes for English majors, too—who wouldn’t pronounce Stephen King a better author than Donald Barthelme or William Vollmann. The students do not have any shame about reading inferior texts.” Let’s leave aside the question of whether Stephen King is a poorer writer than Barthelme or Vollmann (I wonder if Professor Williamson has ever actually made a case for his verdict in this matter) and simply ask whether we want people to read Barthelme or Vollmann or anyone else out of a sense of shame—not because they are intriguedThe Dead Father or think that Rising Up and Rising Down is urgent and powerful, but because they want to be seen holding such books and would be humiliated if Professor Williamson caught them with a copy of Cujo in hand. There’s much more wisdom in a statement by the magnificently snobby and elitist critic Dwight Macdonald (1906-1982), who called himself a “conservative anarchist” and once commented, “Well, I say, being an anarchist, that I don’t believe in taking people by the hand and force-feeding them culture. I think they should make their own decisions. If they want to go to museums and concerts, that’s fine, but they shouldn’t be seduced into doing it or shamed into doing it.”

There are, it seems to me, only two possible effects that Bloom’s approach can have upon readers: it can make them self-congratulatory—“Yes, I, and a few others like me, read the proper works”—or it can terrify them—“How can I be worthy of this high calling?” Neither response has anything to do with genuine reading. Thus Lewis, Bloom’s polar opposite in this matter, imagines a group of educated adults, having been well instructed by the Vigilants, complacently discussing their recent reading. “Yet, while this goes on downstairs, the only real literary experience in such a family may be occurring in a back bedroom where a small boy is reading Treasure Island”—or, perhaps, Harry Potter—“under the bedclothes by the light of an electric torch.”

Now, I must admit that there’s a message worth noting from the other side of the readerly street. James Murphy, the lead singer for the band LCD Soundsystem, had this to say about his own reading experiences: “I actually want to write a treatise in defence of pretension. . . . I think the word pretension has become like the word ironic—just this catch–all term to distance people from interesting experiences and cultural engagement and possible embarrassment. Pretension can lead to other things. You know, the first time I read Gravity’s Rainbow, I did so because I thought it would make me seem cool. That was my original motivation. But now I’ve read it six times, and I find it hilarious and great and I understand it. You can’t be afraid to embarrass yourself sometimes.” “Pretension can lead to other things” is a wise word. Young people often signal through their pretensions what they hope to become: they have discerned, maybe in a limited way, some good and they are pursuing it as best they can, given limited knowledge and experience. They see people whom they admire, or are in some ay attracted to, and they try to copy the preferences of those paragons. Such copying can lead to more and more pretension; but in many cases the pretense becomes real: the tastes we aspire to often become our own tastes. (For better or worse: this happens with whiskey, cigarettes, drugs, and sweetbreads, as well as books, with wildly variable results.) That achievement comes my imitation is true, and importantly true. But it is also true that that we need eventually to grow out of reliance on signaling. What is forgivable and even touching in the young Richard Rodriguez can be unpleasant in a mature adult.

And the child who reads with a pure enthusiasm, signaling nothing to anyone, is beautiful: thus Lewis’s defense of reading unsophisticated books. Lewis’s great predecessor in such thoughts was G. K. Chesterton, in his defense of the “penny dreadfuls” so popular in the late Victorian world. “There is no class of vulgar publications about which there is, to my mind, more utterly ridiculous exaggeration and misconception than the current boys’ literature of the lowest stratum.” Chesterton is perfectly happy to acknowledge that these books are not in the commendatory sense “literature,” because “the simple need for some kind of ideal world in which fictitious persons play an unhampered part is infinitely deeper and older than the rules of good art, and much more important. Every one of us in childhood has constructed such an invisible dramatis personae, but it never occurred to our nurses to correct the composition by careful comparison with Balzac.”

While I agree with Harold Bloom about many things, and am thankful for his long advocacy for the greatest of stories and poems, in these matters I am firmly on the side of Lewis and Chesterton. Read what gives you delight—at least most of the time—and do so without shame. And even if you’re that rare sort of person who is delighted chiefly by what some people call Great Books, don’t make them your steady intellectual diet, any more than you would eat at the most elegant of restaurants every day. It would be too much. Great books are great in part because of what they ask of their readers: they are not readily encountered, easily assessed. The poet W. H. Auden once wrote, “When one thinks of the attention that a great poem demands, there is something frivolous about the notion of spending every day with one. Masterpieces should be kept for High Holidays of the Spirit”—for our own personal Christmases and Easters, not for any old Wednesday.

It’s noteworthy that what someone like the young Richard Rodriguez thought of as true and high seriousness—reading masterpieces and masterpieces only—Auden sees as “frivolous.” This is not so paradoxical as it seems. What’s frivolous is not the masterpiece itself, but the idea that at any given time I the reader am prepared to meet its standards, to rise to its challenges. Those challenges wear heavily upon the unprepared reader (at age ten or twenty or sixty) and as a result the reading, which in anticipation promised such riches of meaning, proves in fact to be that dread appointment with the elliptical trainer I mentioned earlier. And who needs that?

At the end of his memoir Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever, Walter Kirn recalls a time when, as a recent graduate of Princeton, he read a book. All his life he had read only to impress others, primarily his teachers: he had been a kind of cynical Doppelgänger of Richard Rodriguez, seeing reading only as an instrument by which some other kind of good might be achieved. (“I relied on my gift for mimicking authority figures and playing back to them their own ideas as though they were conclusions I’d reached myself. …What was learning but a form of borrowing? And what was intelligence but borrowing slyly?”) But having succeeded at this game, he discerns its emptiness, and the unraveling of all his ambitions leads to a near-complete breakdown: “My education was running in reverse as my mind shed its outermost layer of signs and symbols and shrank back to its dumb, preliterate state.” But it’s at this moment, with no one ordering him or expecting him to do any such thing, he inexplicably picks up and decides to read The Adventures of Huckeberry Finn. Then he moves on to Great Expectations.

And so, belatedly, haltingly, accidentally, and quite implausibly and incredibly, it began at last: my education. I wasn’t sure what it would get me, whose approval it might win, or how long it might take to complete (forever, I had an inkling), but for once those weren’t my first concerns. Alone in my room, congested and exhausted, I forgot my obsession with self-advancement. I wanted to lose myself. I wanted to read. Instead of filling in the blanks, I wanted to be a blank and be filled in.
I wanted to find out what others thought.

For the first time in his life, Walter Kirn was reading at whim.
And it’s never too late to begin this new life as a free reader. Not long after Kirn’s book came out, Cathleen Schine wrote a wonderful essay for the New York Times about being a “teenage illiterate” — that is, having been turned off reading, especially literary reading, as a teenager and coming back to it only as an adult. At one point, frustrated with her inability to find books she liked and to stick with them, “I remembered a bag in the closet with stuff my ex-boyfriend had left behind, including a paperback copy of Our Mutual Friend, his favorite novel. A few days later I emerged from that exquisite book and cursed myself for wasting so much of my life doing things other than what God in all his wisdom clearly meant for me to do for the rest of my life: read Dickens.” For Schine this discovery “was a defining moment,” and “it could never have happened if I had not been blessedly illiterate.”

That is to say, she came upon a world of wonderful books when she was ready for them—when she could receive what they have to offer. “I got to read Huckleberry Finn for the first time when I was 35 years old. I read My Antonia for the first time last month. That is a kind of grace. If …I had read Huckleberry Finn at 14, would I have re-read it at 35? Maybe, but it wouldn’t have been the same transcendent experience as discovering it as an adult.”

So the books are waiting. Of this you may be confident: they’ll be ready when the whim strikes you.

Chapter Excerpt “God Knows There’s Need: Christian Responses to Poverty”

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I grew up understanding liturgy as a mystery, that is, as Dennis Covington defines mystery, “not the absence of meaning but the presence of more meaning than we can comprehend.” As our pastors and church teachers explained Lutheran liturgy, we came to view certain worship-related theological phrases and explanations as “right” and others as misleading or frankly wrong, but none of them could ever be fully adequate. The expectations for my own liturgical practices as a member of the laity on Sunday mornings were clear enough; the mystery was in the divine. It was that aspect that made it liturgy rather than theater or play-acting. Our clergy led us with liturgical clothing, words, and actions, but we, holding as Lutherans do to the “priesthood of all believers,” were also equally responsible to engage with the sacred at a less visible level, with our whole hearts and minds. I thought much about liturgy as a child and wrote liturgies for my dolls. As I understood it, in Christianity as in many religions, liturgy was engagement in ritual that used basic material substances to give shape to a sacred dwelling space, a cosmic “reality.” To participating believers, this was no artificial construction of reality, but rather engagement in a reality that went far beyond the self, yet remained independent of the self, whether we knew it or not. For us, liturgies and sacraments were neither symbols nor reminders; they were not even something that we effected. They were engagements that, effected from the beginning of time, invited us to enter. Engaging with elementary substances of service and sacraments in what was tangible, the liturgical event marked my presence in a space intangible yet “literal,” beyond my imagining or any potential for petty manipulation. Liturgical space invited reception. It was a place where, against all the odds, what I did was truly heard, understood, and mattered. You are on holy ground, God told Moses at the bush. A sketch of Moses’s shoes, separated from his feet, can still be seen and touched in the Byzantine synagogue mosaic at ancient Sepphoris in Galilee. To follow God was to enter a liturgy imaged by fire: through the Red Sea and on the altar in the Holy of Holies. Open your mouth, God told Isaiah; let this holy coal from the altar change the molecular configuration and performance of your lips. My brother donned the red robe and white surplice of an altar boy, lighting the altar candles, holy flames that never once gave me a nightmare.

Holy fire moves, summoning us inward, upward. In the church that my family attended in the late 1970s, the sun streamed through an enormous, clear, four-part window behind the altar down the central aisle during the Sunday liturgies. The light was divided only by two crossshaped beams that met above and behind the altar. Along the shadowed cross-beam the sun drew us each week with its rising, moving the boundaries of light ever forward and upward across the polished floor to the altar. The brilliance of that sun warmed the raw edges of my soul. To engage with this white-flamed immanence touched me in ways that changed me forever. I still believe that liturgy is an engagement in mystery.

There is a sense in which liturgy is like the moving light and shadow of that silhouetted cross on the church floor. It is not only a “vertical” engagement between me and the divine, but its arms also move horizontally, across the community, held out to draw in, to receive, to welcome, and to define the boundaries of the physical self who engages in service in the here and now. Those who are wholly alone rarely stand with arms outstretched; the position has meaning only in relation to others.

Being a natural introvert, it took me years to appreciate the close relationship between the public social action that made it so painful for me to serve poor families hour after hour, day after day, in a public clinic, and the similarly difficult challenge I faced when given the chance to enter into more explicitly public liturgical practices. This became most obvious when I decided that as someone who studies the early church in the Greek-speaking Byzantine world I really ought to know more about contemporary eastern Orthodox worship. Although many of my friends were Orthodox, my initial visits to Orthodox parishes were a profound physical shock, not just at first but for many months, quite apart from the usual tensions of visiting a community of strangers. The parish I visited most often has a sanctuary in the round, with no pews and just a few chairs against the walls. Orthodox worship in such a setting is very kinetic indeed, and without the synchronized and uniform actions I knew from Protestant and Roman Catholic experiences. Here, instead, everyone did things a little differently. This gave me some liberty, but there were certain things everyone did that I had never done before. These included public veneration of icons, liturgical kissing of various objects, and (in Lent) full-body prostrations, a ritual in which you kneel down in order to lie wholly, face down, on the ground, and then rise up again, repetitively, either during the Sunday liturgy or once a year in a direct personal encounter with each of your fellow parishioners as part of a ritual request for mutual forgiveness. In the first few weeks of my Orthodox visits, I could sit in the shadows and watch, but my physical stillness made me painfully obvious. Besides, I was convinced that I could understand this tradition only if I worked at understanding it with my whole body. Yet I felt almost catatonically reticent in such public space. This reticence had nothing to do with theology. I had done my homework and knew that, intellectually anyway, I was willing to bow, kneel, kiss icons, and even perform occasional full prostrations, if required. I was not prepared, however, to do these things in the presence of other people. It did not matter that they were, more or less, doing the same thing. I longed for everyone—just for those moments—to disappear so that, as C. S. Lewis put it in his defense of liturgical prostration, “the body should do its homage.” I began to come to church early to try this physical worship with as few people present as possible. I persisted only because, to my surprise, I found it deeply moving.

Deciding next to reach out to be more physically engaging in my own tradition, I found that more familiar liturgical practices were almost equally difficult. I encountered exactly the same discomfort during a year as a liturgical cupbearer in a small Episcopal chapel, as I faced weekly internal agonies at being in front and full view of the surprisingly large number of parishioners who turned out at eight o’clock every Sunday morning. As was also true in my Orthodox ventures, the only part that was easy was saying the words, conditioned as I was by decades of verbal liturgy and church music. But as I physically forced my body to engage in the intimacy of serving communion in full view of the crowds, with one of several priests whom I deeply respected, my hands and voice following theirs as I offered holy cup and holy words, a privilege and a service, I wanted nothing more than to disappear completely. Others tell me they experience the same fraught tension in the mere act of moving up to the front of the church to receive communion.

The public reticence of my own experience may be extreme, but it has taught me that affirming the Christian doctrine of the incarnation requires more than an intellectual exercise within our usual comfortable physical routines. It requires more than adjusting our external resources, to “live more simply,” “give more generously,” or “be more intentionally hospitable.”

Affirming incarnation mindful of the embodied nature of those in need and suffering from violence and injustice begins at the level of our own body cells, our own nerve endings, and our own volitional, nonverbal behavior, not just in relation to other people but also in relation to ourselves and how we worship, how we listen to our body, and how we pray. Our awareness on these many levels may have profound implications for how we address global issues of need and injustice.

Excerpt “Learning to Die in Miami: Confessions of a Refugee Boy”

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The car did it.

That green and white 1958 Ford Custom two-door sedan that uncle Amado bought for three hundred dollars with money saved through grocery store coupons has changed my life unexpectedly.

It has unleashed the Void.

Suddenly, Amado and his wife and daughters can go places.  Which means that I often come home to an empty house, because they love to do everything together, even if it’s only a trip to the A & P for a dozen eggs.

And when I come home to an empty house, the Void pounces on me immediately.

I try fighting it off, but it always gets the best of me.  Telling it that the house will be swarming with people soon doesn’t distract it.  Nothing does.  When I walk through the door and find myself alone in the house, all of my defenses against Absolute Absence evaporate instantly.

Pow. I’m knocked out in a flash.

Instant replay, each and every time.  It’s an emotional and spiritual endless loop, an eternal Now moment of the sort no one wants to have.  Absolute Absence, absolute pain….

the same thing keeps happening.  I come home to an empty house and I’m toast.  And every time it happens, the Void has an ever greater effect on me.  Pretty soon I’ll be burnt to a crisp, or worse.  I’ll be nothing but carbon atoms dispersing in all directions in the vacuum of space at the speed of light.

There has to be some way to beat this.  But how?

The idolater in me, the superstitious troglodyte, whispers:
“Pssst. How about that book that’s supposed to have an answer for every question.  The one your derelict parents forced you to bring along?”

Yeah, sure.  All previous attempts to obtain divine guidance from that chamber of horrors had been irredeemable failures.  That book was nothing but a source of fright and despair.

But my pain is so great, I’ll try just about anything.  Even this superstitious game, which, as experience has taught me time and time again, is not only futile, but always to be regretted.

So I open The Imitation of Christ at random, and my eyes spot a passage that says:
“Be prepared for the fight, then, if you wish to gain the victory…. If you desire to be crowned, fight bravely and bear up patiently. Without labor there is no rest, and without fighting, no victory.”

I’m astonished.  For the first time ever, this book is speaking to me, and what it says makes sense.  This has to be a fluke.

So I put the wretched text to the test again.  I flip the pages back and forth, back and forth, and settle on a spot towards the back of the book.

Another passage that makes sense.  No way.  This, too, is mere coincidence.  One more time.  I flip the pages back and forth and find yet another text that speaks to me.  This is too weird.  Maybe there’s something to this book, after all.  Maybe?  Just maybe?

Slightly unnerved by this thought, I put the book away, determined not to pick it up again anytime soon.

And the next thing I know I’m not just opening it at random, but reading it from front to back, little by little.  The more sense it makes, the more I read and the more confused I get.  What’s wrong with me?  This is crazy.  Maybe I’m crazy?  How can everything I’ve feared for so long now seem incredibly sweet, and so much like the key that unlocks all of the secrets of the universe?  Nothing like this has ever happened to me before.  Not even close to it.  Nothing has flipped on me so completely as this book.

Things are what they are.  What you see is what you get.   Pain is pain.  Evil is evil.  Ugliness is ugliness.  An iguana is an ugly-ass lizard, perhaps even a proof that God can’t exist, or that if he does, then he’s far from all Good.  An iguana can’t suddenly turn into Marilyn Monroe or Perfect Peggy in Mr. Noden’s class.

Then how is it that this awful book has pulled this trick on me?  Since when do self-denial, abject humility, self-emptying, devotion to a crucified God, and detachment from the world equal happiness?  Since when does abstinence gain you anything but frustration?

I read the book gingerly at first, much like someone on the bomb squad might handle an explosive device.  But before long I am deeply immersed in it, and nodding in agreement, even with the most repulsive of passages, which ask me to embrace suffering, and to hanker for a cross like those of Jesus and Spartacus.

No way. 

Years from now I’ll read about Buddhist monks who are brought to sudden enlightenment when they’re struck on the back of the head with a plank by their more advanced elders, as they meditate on illogical propositions. And I’ll know what that blow to the head must feel like, more or less.  I had no elder to whack me, but I did have a book that did exactly the same thing.

Everything changes, from top to bottom.  A veil rips, loudly, and light pours through, and nothing looks the same.  For the first time in my life I feel as if I’m master of my own destiny, not because I think more highly of myself, but just the opposite.  Accepting my own limitations is key.  So is accepting it as an unquestionable fact that some higher power is eager to help me overcome whatever the world throws at me, both from without and within.

It’s close to Easter.  My mind is reeling and so are my heart and my will.  I’m in Bizarro world now, where everything is the opposite of what it should be.  I’m no longer who I was two months before, and neither is the world itself.

Jagged is smooth.  Bitter is sweet.  Sorrow is Joy.  Dark is light.  Black is white.
The unseen illumines what’s seen.
Absurdity rescues logic.
Love of self leads to anguish.
Self-loathing leads to elation.
Abstinence becomes the highest thrill of all.
Praying becomes the only conversation that makes sense.
Believing becomes as natural and unstoppable as breathing.
Doubting becomes as unsurprising as exhaling.
Forgiving becomes the only sensible option.
Temptation drops its mask.
Remorse claims its crown.
Loss loses its sting.
Pain gains its wings.
Now becomes forever.  Forever begins now, forever.

Slowly, ever so haltingly, I catch fleeting glimpses of  Something so awesome that Carlos, Charles, Charlie and Chuck all feel compelled to bow before It,  thank It, and trust It without reservation.  This response is a physical reflex, not just a spiritual one.  Bowing, kneeling, prostrating oneself is as involuntary before It as closing one’s eyes to the full light of the sun.

Holy Thursday.  I come home, and the house is empty.  I stare at Corn
Belt Jesus, hanging there, above my uncle’s empty chair.  It’s late afternoon, and the fast-sinking sun is shining through the dining room windows.  It’s a weird sort of light, for there are  dark clouds out there, closing in on the sun, ominously.  The kind of clouds that usually prompt  tornado warnings.

The fear I’ve had for so long about being alone rises in me, in a savage rush.  I feel the Void about to pounce.  I know its ways all too well, and can sense it approaching, faster than the speed of light.

“Dukes up.”

Before I can do anything, in a flash, a Presence fills the room, and expands it to the size of the entire universe.  Light streams in.  The Void crashes into this Presence, and evaporates, instantly, in the blinding glow.  The force of the impact throws me off balance, physically, and hurls me to the ground, on my knees, right there, by my uncle’s chair, under Protestant Jesus, sweet Midwestern Christ, ever so human and infinite and present.  As I gaze at him, the god-damned Void hisses and spits and sputters and vanishes.

This is no mere knockout, I think.  This is some sort of annihilation.  Way to go.

It will take me several years to figure out what happened there, in that living room.  But I know for sure, as I rise from the floor, that I’ve just died again and that nothing can ever be the same.  I also know that this new life will be much better than any of those that preceded it.  Not because it’ll be less painful from now on, but because the pain will make perfect sense, and even seem like a beautiful gift from that Presence I felt today, for the first time.

Good Friday.  It’s good, really good.  Really, really.  For the first time ever.

Easter Sunday.  Now, finally, I understand what Easter is.  Resurrection was an empty word before.  Now it makes all the awful things look bright, even the very worst, such as each and every crucifix.

I no longer need to fear Absence again, or so I think.   But I have a lot to learn, yet.

Flash forward two years, exactly.  Spring, 1967.  I’m now living in Chicago, with my mother and Tony.

I’ve spent the past two months re-reading The Imitation of Christ, slowly, methodically absorbing everything it has to say.  Whatever effect that book had on me the first time around seems like a surface scratch on my soul compared to the nearly total immolation that’s taken place this time.  I’m on fire.  It’s not just because I’m older and have more deaths and rebirths  behind me, but also because this time around, I’ve also followed the book’s  instructions carefully and read the four gospels in the New Testament too.  I’ve gone straight to the source, and what I’ve found there has blown me away.  I’d been hearing snippets every week at church since infancy, but I’d never paid too much attention to those texts, and their power.   Not even after I first saw the light two years earlier.

If you’re going to imitate someone, especially a Savior, you should at least read the few sacred texts in which his words and deeds are recorded.

Now, everything changes, again.  Whatever I knew has been eclipsed, overpowered by a much brighter light, much like a tiny candle in a room that is suddenly filled with brilliant sunshine.  And that metaphor doesn’t even begin to cover the change that’s taken place in me.  Words fail.  Every metaphor fails.  If nothing like this has ever happened to you, no amount of explaining will help.  It’s a lot like trying to describe colors to a blind person.   Try explaining green, in all its shades.  And all the other colors too.  Good luck.

If you’ve ever fallen deeply in love with anyone, however, you may be able to understand.  How does one put that into words?  Poets have been failing at it since the dawn of time.

And my great good fortune this Lenten season is that I’m falling in love in two ways at once, with a higher Presence who demands total surrender, and with the girl who sits right next to me in history class, who demands nothing but my constant and total enthrallment.  The gospel burns me, incinerates me.  This blonde girl does the same, but not so totally.  She can’t. My bad luck is that these two kinds of love don’t mix too well, especially when the girl’s a senior and you’re nothing but a sophomore, and you only see her for forty minutes, five days a week, in the tightly-controlled environment of a history class.

As I see it, the gulf between me and God is much narrower than the one that exists between me and this perfect girl, even though she sits less than two feet away from me.

So I do all I can do, given the circumstances, I yield totally to both kinds of love, and hope for the best.  And in both dimensions, I’m on fire like Moses’s burning bush, always aflame, but never consumed.

My daily life changes most radically in the spiritual dimension, where my contact with higher things is not limited to forty minutes, five days a week.  I start to attend Mass every morning before school, and to pray constantly whenever I can, filling every minute, every second with a certain kind of mental conversation that Dr. Freud and most of his disciples would diagnose as pathological, delusional obsessive-compulsiveness of the worst sort, but Doctor Jung and other experts would not.  I also embrace fasting during Lent with all of the discipline of an Olympic athlete, and once Lent is over, I find it impossible to let go of that kind of letting go. The more I relinquish my will, the easier it becomes to tame it, the greater the peace I feel.  I vow total surrender.

Ay.  This surrender is harder than I thought.  Giving up food and drink is one thing.  But giving up the way this girl Christine makes me feel is impossible, despite the searing holy pain that comes with it.   She is so beautiful, and so smart, and so, so funny, so….so…so everything.  Name it: if it’s something good, she’s got it in spades.   If only she weren’t two whole grades ahead of me, I might have a chance to spend time with her outside of class.

Yeah, sure.  Dream on.

I have no chance with her, I know, but I surrender to her all the same, inside, and ride the huge tsunami that’s sweeping me away in the spiritual dimension.  What’s the use of opening up to her, of trying to spend more time with her?  I really should let go.  I should be a monk.  Yes, definitely.  Or maybe a priest.

I’ve got to sort out this dilemma.

So I talk to my pastor, Monsignor Picard.  I tell him I’m torn between God and this girl.  He advises me to enroll in Quigley Seminary, a high school run by the Archdiocese of Chicago in which boys my age are fast-tracked into the priesthood.  He writes down the address on a piece of paper and gives it to me, much as a doctor hands a prescription to a patient.

“Go there as soon as you can,” he says.

I carry this prescription with me on the subway all the way to the gates of the seminary, which happens to be wedged against Chicago’s nightclub district, Rush Street.  I stand at the gates and peer into the courtyard.  Pure, heavenly gothic.  Every detail directs your attention upwards and inwards and beyond.   I look at the piece of paper in my hand, at the perfectly symmetrical stone tracery of the rose window, the large doors, the soot and grime that has settled on the imposing façade, the spires, the skyscrapers that surround it and dwarf it, and my hands begin to tremble. Then my whole body feels as if it’s being squashed from above, below, and all sides, like a grape in a winepress.  An overwhelming feeling I can’t recognize surges from somewhere inside of me, and takes over.

It’s not fear.  It’s not indecision.  It’s a certainty I’ve never had before, ever.  It’s as if an invisible hand is pushing me away, and a silent booming voice is telling me to scram.  This is not for you.  This isn’t your calling.  Go home, go back to Senn High School.  There are other paths, many others, and yours is out there, waiting for you.  It will call to you.  Wait.

So I run away, literally, back to the subway, as if I’m fleeing a raging fire or an avalanche, and I head back north to my unholy neighborhood, Edgewater, where I belong.

It’s in history class, sitting next to Christine, that I will find my path.  Gradually, it becomes clear to me as the days lengthen, the air warms up, and the trees begin to bud, and Christine becomes ever lovelier, that I need to be a historian and a teacher, and that my focus should be the history of my own religion.  That’s why I’m on earth.  Nothing anyone will say to me over the next ten years will dissuade me from following that path I see stretching before me, so nice and narrow and straight.

As for my path towards Christine, well, it’s also very clear, unfortunately.  Dead end.  She graduates, at the summit of her class. College bound.  I have two more years of high school ahead of me.  That’s it. Adios.

All I can do is savor each and every day and repeat my mantra: Let go. Let go. Let go.

When that awful last day comes around, I wangle a ticket to the graduation ceremony, and say goodbye, good luck.  And so does she.  We go our separate ways.  Oddly, though, her absence only intensifies the feelings I have for her, and I’m mystified by this. How can it be so impossible to let go of someone who isn’t there at all?

Years later, St. John of the Cross will explain it all to me in his poems.

And sometime in 1978…  my path seems to come to an abrupt dead end. Whoa.  Nothing but tangled brush and a dark heavy jungle ahead.  And this choking nightmare forest envelops me, quickly swallowing up the brightly-lit path I followed, which dead-ends as painfully as my time with Christine.  All around, everywhere I look there’s nothing but a stinking, vine-strangled jungle on all sides, and I have no compass to follow or sharp-edged tools with which to clear it.  I can’t find a teaching job.  My marriage falls apart.  I lose interest in everything I’d once loved, including history.  I’ve stopped praying.  No one to talk to anymore, as I see it.  No Presence.  Just more sucker punches from the Void, now and then.   And when I finally do find a job, it’s at the edge of the world, in Nowhere, Minnesota.

All I have left to like is long-distance running, and I take that up with the same passion I had once reserved for prayer. I run therefore I am.

Flash forward to June 1980.   I’m now twice as old as I was when I came home on that Holy Thursday back in 1965.  I’ve been teaching in Nowhere and frequenting the Buckhorn Bar far too often.  I’ve given up on letting go.  Forget it.  Evanescent beauty is all I seek, for that’s all that cheers me and all I’m certain of.

Soul mate, schmoul mate.   Sure.  Dream on.  There’s no such thing.  A path?  Maybe for some, but not for me.  God?  Yeah, sure.  He definitely exists.  But only on my terms.

I’m in Paris, traveling alone, living like a bum.  I don’t have a hotel at which to stay tonight, but I couldn’t care less.  It’s a sunny day in June, and Paris is as heartbreakingly full of itself as when it’s grey and cold and damp.  The weather never makes a difference here.  Nothing makes a difference.  Paris is what it is.  Too much.

Way too much.

I’m sitting on the ground, my back against a tree.  I’m  in the Square du Vert Galant, a small park at the western tip of the Île de la Cité, which looks and feels just like the prow of a ship.  The Seine River flows at my right and my left and meets up to form one stream directly ahead of me as it runs undivided under the Pont des Arts.  I’ve been writing letters and post cards for hours, drawing pictures in them, and taking in the scenery, reflecting on how strange it is that this place I’ve never visited before should feel so much like home, and more so than any other spot on earth.  I feel rooted, for the very first time in ages, and more firmly anchored to this tiny island, here, than I ever felt to that large lizard-shaped island where I was born.

I suspect my late father Louis XVI has something to do with this.

I feel tendrils extending from the core of my soul, growing, burrowing into the soil beneath me, swiftly and doggedly branching out in all directions,  reaching down, down, to the core of the earth itself.   I don’t ever want to leave, and vow to stay put.  To hell with that teaching job in Minnesota.  I’ll work as a street sweeper here, if I have to.

Yet, I don’t know a soul in this city, and the locals stubbornly refuse to understand the way I speak their language.  If the Void really wanted to do me in, it could do it right here, in this strange place where I’m more alone than I’ve ever been.  It could drive me mad with Absence, push me into the Seine and drown me, as it’s done with many a forlorn lover.

“Come and get me,” I whisper, in English. “I dare you.”


The air is perfectly still.  The harmonious din of Paris reverberates down here, so near the water.  It’s as if all of the sound waves tumble down to this spot because they feel as much at home here as I do.   I try to detect the presence of my dead father, the one-time decapitated King of France, who may or may not have enjoyed being in Paris again.  He’s not here.  Absent, as always, despite his profound influence.

“Dukes up, bitch,” I whisper, again. “I double dare you.”


Instead, the Presence that first banished the Void from my life years ago quietly begins to snip away all the tendrils that had just sprung from the core of my soul.   Silently, wordlessly, It severs each and every one of these fast-growing roots and forces me to stand up and walk away.  Snip, snip, snip.  I hear no voices, I see no apparitions, but I know that It is everywhere and has always been and will always be, especially in that spot deep within me that had tried to root itself in this one place.  How I know this, I don’t know.  But I’m as certain of this Presence and Its boundlessness and Its nearness as I am of the fact that I’m right smack in the middle of Paris, walking up the steps to the Pont Neuf, headed for the locker at the train station where I’ve crammed my duffle bag.

It doesn’t need to speak at all.  It doesn’t have to say “let go.”   I already know this, just as I know that the Void will stalk me for life, but never prevail.  I reach for a passage I first read a long time ago in a certain book, which is etched into my memory, somewhere in there.

With my third eye I search for that text in my Vault of Remembering.  I see Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.  They hand me a small brown book engulfed in flames, and hurl me across a turquoise sea to a strange and wondrous land, as they cry a river of tears wider and deeper and murkier than the Seine.  I open the burning book at random and read the text in question, which, curiously, is no longer in Spanish:

“He who knows best how to let go will enjoy the greater peace, because he is the conqueror of himself, the master of the world, and an heir of heaven.”

The flames from this passage leap up and scorch all the stubble left behind by the severed tendrils.  The light is blinding.  The fumes are sublime.  And the pain is absolutely exquisite.


SILT 2005 Session Summaries

Session 1: Professor Jürgen Moltmann

Reborn to a Living Hope: Personal Experience and Political Consciousness

The Institute began the afternoon of April 26 at the Bonhoeffer House, the home of Charles and Karen Marsh. After a reception and introductions, Professor Moltmann opened with his talk “Reborn to a Living Hope: Personal Experience and Political Consciousness” through which he shared his autobiography, including how he came to faith as a prisoner of war after World War II and the sources and shaping of his theological thinking through the decades. By beginning in such a manner Professor Moltmann legitimized two interconnected methods of theological conversation: first that theology can and, perhaps at its best, must arise out of the individual’s own life and experience; theology is, in an important sense, autobiography, an expression of God’s intimate involvement in the lives of us human beings. Professor Moltmann shared that theology is a passion which comes “from the open wound of God in one’s own life,” from the missing of God, from the hunger for the Kingdom of God in the face of suffering. Furthermore, theological inquiry is about God’s delight as well as God’s pain. It also springs from an overabundant joy that loves and affirms this life. This certainly is not to say that theology is done in isolation. In fact, the second way in which Moltmann led us in theological conversation was by continuously placing the personal and the political in dialogue, with the implication being that these are two interconnected dimensions of all theological themes, such as trust, hope, justice and suffering. Religion should not be a private affair but a “theology with its face turned towards the world.”

Session 2: Professor Jürgen Moltmann

There Is Enough for Everyone: The Spirit of Life and Social Consciousness

The second day began in the Solarium of the university’s Colonnade Club with Professor Moltmann’s lecture “There is Enough for Everyone: The Spirit of Life and Social Consciousness” followed, as was each session, by fruitful conversation with the participants and their responses. “There is enough” became the maxim through which we spoke of the Spirit’s movement and our responsibility in the midst of the realities of injustice and suffering in the communities in which we live and work. The experience of the first Christian community began at Pentecost as described in Acts 4:31-35 and inaugurated the reality — and not just ideal — that “there was no one needy among them.” In community there is enough. This participation in God’s overabundance stands in opposition to our capitalist norm of competition which is based on the principle of lack — that there is never enough. Such competition shatters community and makes nations, ethnicities, classes, and genders rise against each other. Professor Moltmann also led us in a discussion of how we reconcile personal freedom and social equality. Can there be true democracy of freedom without social equity? When the justice of God is added to the abundance of life there is enough. Out of a joy of life and a trust that we will be taken care of comes repentance from the greed of life and a consequent moderation, a willingness for just distribution of riches.

Session 3: Mark Gornik

Signs of the Spirit in the City

After lunch Mark Gornik presented “Signs of the Spirit in the City” in which he shared both his experience in the Sandtown neighborhood of Baltimore and his work with African immigrant churches in New York City. Gornik was the pastor of New Song Church in Sandtown which began as a house fellowship among members of the community that asked the simple question, “What did God intend our neighborhood to look like?” Children took crayons and papers and drew the beautiful neighborhood of renovated homes and proper social services that Sandtown has now become and is continuing to become. Starting from the pictures of children, a vision not of optimism but of hope has been realized through community grassroots participation. In the Psalms and in the book of Revelation the “new song” is the victory hymn of the cross that reconciles people together. As a white privileged pastor moving into an impoverished African-American neighborhood Gornik described himself and his colleague Allen Tibels as “a divine joke” who moved in knowing that they had no practical solutions but simply wanted to be neighbors. They came not with established programs but with the humble desire to share life together as community. And they came as an act of repentance. They were a part of the white privileged class that benefited and lived off of the urban environment. In other words, they came to participate in a ministry of justice and not charity. They were drawn into what Professor Moltmann called “the wide space of the Spirit” which is “the dawn of the Kingdom of God.”

Third Annual CAPPS Lecture in Christian Theology: Professor Jürgen Moltmann

In God We Trust, In Us God Trusts: On Freedom and Security in a Free World

The third annual CAPPS lecture was held at 5:00 PM on April 27th at St. Paul’s Memorial Church and was an opportunity for the broader university community, as well as Charlottesville residents and even groups from around the region, to hear Professor Moltmann present his lecture, “In God We Trust; In Us God Trusts: On Freedom and Security in a Free World.” Professor Moltmann explicated how trust is “a necessary habitat for freedom.” He asked if we can trust in God and answered that the God who bears, endures, and shares our grief and sorrows is the foundation of our trust in the divine. Trust is mutual and so the next question must be whether God trusts in us? Indeed God believes in us and even expects our living to be a manifestation of God’s glory on earth. God’s trust in us is the final word. God’s confidence in us is a liberation of the soul from depression, resignation and lack of self-confidence. Such trust liberates us to participate in the Spirit who is always already at work in our midst in both private and public life. Moreover, vital to a theology of trust is a theology of doubt. The doubt, for example, that questions certain political powers helps ensure that we serve the living God rather than idols. A politics that contradicts the face of the crucified Christ is erroneous and Christians must publicly criticize such idols.

Session 4: Professor Jürgen Moltmann, and Willis Jenkins responding

The New Earth in which Justice Dwells: The Creative Spirit and Ecological Consciousness

The next morning, Professor Moltmann spoke on “The New Earth in which Justice Dwells: The Creative Spirit and Ecological Consciousness” with Willis Jenkins, a PhD candidate in Religious Studies, introducing and responding to Moltmann’s environmental theology. The gospel addresses the whole earth and all things — human beings, animals and nature — are interconnected in their participation in grace. Such an acknowledgment connects environmental ministry to social justice. However, we live in the midst of an environmental crisis rooted in modern scientific technology whose logic and will is domination and whose purpose in the political world is to acquire, extend and wield power. The modern picture of the divine is a one-sided understanding of an almighty God, as absolute determining subject over against the world as passive object; this in turn leads to human beings seeing ourselves as subjects authorized to dominate the earth which we view as an object to manipulate. What is necessary is a paradigm shift from domination to community. We have disrupted our relationship with nature and thus must repent, but our lack of confession and repentance reveals the ecological crisis to also be an ecclesial one. The book of Genesis teaches that every creature is included in God’s covenant and has its own dignity, with each creature being a partner in God’s covenant in differing but important ways. This sacramental understanding of the whole world allows for a kind of pantheism: that God’s presence is in all things and all things are in God. Creation exists by, in and through God and thus the creative spirit that is in everything holds it together as Colossians reminds us. In nature we find God’s transcendent immanence; we find the presence of the creator and thus whatever we do to the earth we do to Christ and the Spirit. Rather than define the Trinity and the earth in stark and discontinuous differentiation, this new type of ecological thinking affirms the description of Revelation 21:3, the mutual cosmic indwelling of the Trinitarian God and creatures. Furthermore, human longing and redemption is interconnected with that of creation as Romans 8 expresses. Pentecost is the renewal of our own lives as well as the beginning of the outpouring of the divine spirit on all living things. According to Psalms, God is renewing the face of the earth. And the new earth is destined to become the home of God.