Monday, May 25, 2009

Ora et Labora

The beginning of May was once marked by the Feast of Saints Phillip and James--a "Double of the Second Class" in the old taxonomy--but in more recent times it has been marked by an Optional Memorial of Saint Joseph the Worker. To some, this represents an unsavory change: in the days when May began with Saints Phillip and James, Saint Joseph was celebrated with a "Double of the First Class with a Common Octave"--the highest rank in the old taxonomy short of a "Double of the First class with a Proper Octave"--and he was celebrated under his title as "Most Chaste Spouse of the Ever-Virgin Mary, Confessor, and Patron of the Universal Church". This was a movable feast, held on the Wednesday in the second week after the Octave of Easter. Some critics of the change have described it as at once throwing a sop to Pinkos, making Joseph the "Patron of Workers" on "May Day", while at the same time kicking Traditionalists in the groin by demoting poor old Joseph to a mere Optional Memorial in the execrable new taxonomy forced on us by "that 'council'".

I do not really have a dog in that fight: there are some elements of the old taxonomy that I happen to like, but I have no objections to the new one, which is far simpler for those of us who happen to take the Daily Office fairly seriously but who prefer the Benedictine custom of preserving, as much as possible, the weekly structure of the Psalm cycle. Having said that, however, I was struck this year by one of the readings from the Daily Office on the first of May. The reading is from Sections 33-34 of Gaudium et Spes, the Second Vatican Council's Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. This reading does not treat Saint Joseph's new aegis as "worker" as anything like a sop to Commies; it is, rather, a tribute to Joseph's role as archetype of mankind's triumph over the forces of nature by means the efforts of his own God-given capacities for manipulating the created order of things:
Where formerly man looked especially to supernatural forces for blessings, he now secures many of these benefits for himself, thanks to his own efforts....

Those who believe in God take it for granted that, taken by itself, man's activity, both individual and collective...is in keeping with God's purpose.

Man, created in God's image, has been commissioned to master the earth and all it contains, and so rule the world in justice and holiness. He is to acknowledge God as the creator of all, and to see himself and the whole universe in relation to God....

This commission extends to even the most ordinary activities of everyday life. Where men and women, in the course of gaining a livelihood for themselves and their families, offer appropriate service to society, they can be confident that their personal efforts promote the work of the Creator, confer benefit on their fellowmen, and help to realize God's plan in history.

So far from thinking that the achievements gained by man's abilities and strength are in opposition to God's power, or that man with his intelligence is in some sense a rival to his Creator, Christians are, on the contrary, convinced that the triumphs of the human race are a sign of God's greatness and the effect of his wonderful providence.
This reading resonated with me at a very deep level, because it touches on some of the themes that I myself have been working through in my own spiritual investigations and about which I have written in this forum. In particular I am struck by the description of man's success in the epistemological domain as a sign of God's greatness: I have often written of my belief that the Incarnational aspect of our religion carries with it an assumption that all of reality, no matter how mundane in appearance or base in its experience, is nevertheless shot through with the reality of God, and stands as a sign, for those who are able to read such signs, of God's presence among us. So here, too, in the case of human labor, we see a sign of God's presence among us: the universe is such that we are able to master certain elements of it by virtue of the capacities that God gave us for such mastery, and to the extent that we make use of these capacities and bring about good things by means of them, we make manifest God's presence and, more importantly, his love--an essential act of witness on our part to those parts of God's creation that are not yet, for whatever reason, able to read the signs for themselves.

There is a steady emphasis upon the integration of such human capacities into a God-centered way of life in the Rule of Saint Benedict. Writing in the sixth century Benedict saw the real benefits of manual labor to the maintenance of well-being in a well-balanced human life. Although his Rule is clearly modeled on the earlier Rule of the Master, he departs in some significant ways from the Master's conception of what that well-balanced human life was directed toward. They both agree, of course, that the goal is to gain heaven, but whereas the Master seems to treat our life in the material mode as something of an obstacle to that end, a kind of pre-purgatory to be endured until the End Time comes, Benedict is much more optimistic about the real presence of God's Kingdom among us in the here and now, and he writes his rule with a view to showing how his vision of this Kingdom can be lived out in Community.

This is an element of Benedictine spirituality that I find deeply compelling. If reality really is incarnational, as I have suggested, then it seems naturally to point towards the eschaton in a manner than is more than merely symbolic. It does so by means of a kind of revelation: reality, as we experience it in the here and now, is already a sign of God's presence among us. It seems to me, then, that we ought to interact with reality as though we believe that to be true, and not so much as though we are waiting to see God only at the end of time.

Work is sometimes seen as a figure for our fallen nature: we must engage in toil and live by the sweat of our brows in order to atone for our sinfulness. According to this view, the whole point of the Sabbath day is to illustrate for us God's merciful forgiveness: though we deserve to toil, he sets aside a day for us on which we are to refrain from doing any work, because God has it in his power to excuse us--forgive us--from our debt. To work on the Sabbath, on this view, is to reject God's forgiveness. This is why Jesus said that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.

But this view of work is only half the story. Work per se is not a punishment, only work that is dreary. In the beginning Adam was placed in the Garden in order to tend it, and as any gardener knows, tending a garden is most definitely work. But people who love gardening love the work that they do in their gardens--it is not dreary toil, but sheer pleasure--though if you are like me, you often spend the evening after a day of such sheer pleasure with you feet up and a cool drink by your side nursing your aches and pains. But you don't regret any of it.

So the Benedictine approach to work sees labor in its fullness: sure there is always the possibility for any job to become tedious toil, but it need not do so. Saint Benedict had manual labor in mind when he established his Rule for monasteries in which the monks would pray for eight hours, work for eight hours, and rest for eight hours. But we all have work to do, whether it is the manual labor of tending a garden, driving a tractor, working a lathe, assembling a chassis, or less physically demanding forms of labor such as working at a computer, advising a client about her investments, teaching a class, or keeping the files in order. Many of us do plenty of work that we don't get paid for: taking care of our children, cleaning our house, mowing our yards, doing our laundry--and it is sometimes this kind of work, the work that we don't actually get any money for doing, that we come to find the most dreary. And yet all of this work can be approached with an attitude that sees it as part of a communal project undertaken with our fellow men in order to advance the common good, whether we get paid for it or not. If we have this sort of attitude towards our work, we take a step towards Benedict's vision of how we ought to incorporate work, labor, into our overall lives, lives that, in their fullness, include prayer and rest along with work.

If we are to take seriously the Benedictine injunction to "pray and work" (ora et labora), we will need to find ways of making our work a prayer-like activity. That is, if it should happen, as it often does in this life, that we begin to find our day-to-day tasks tedious and toilsome, we need to search in our hearts for ways to offer up our dislike for what we are doing as a form of prayer; if we happen to love what we are doing, we should offer that up as well. In the former case we ask the Spirit to help us to see, and to help us to help others to see, that everything we do, we do for the Lord; in the latter case we rejoice with the Spirit in our communion with God's manifest image in the created order of things.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Prospective Perspective

I think one of the wisest things I have heard in the confessional was also one of the simplest and most straightforward: "Time is grace." The priest who said this to me was helping me to come to grips with one of my own most commonly confessed sins, a sin of omission: I often feel as though I have done virtually nothing to bring God's love to my fellow men, that there is still much to do in the way of showing to others God's mercy, kindness, and compassion. I found it very helpful to be reminded that one of the ways in which God shows us his mercy and compassion is in giving us time to repent and change our ways. He is a just judge, but he does not rush to judgment.

I have been reminded of this kindly, priestly advice often in the past few weeks. For many years (fifteen, actually) I took various medications to control a cardiac arrhythmia that I sometimes suffered from in my thirties. Atrial fibrillation is not a life-threatening condition, and in my case it was easily controlled with an anti-arrhythmic drug called flecainide. In fact, as long as I was on the medication I was totally free of the arrhythmia, but my doctor thought that there could be complications from using a drug like flecainide for so long, so he had me check in with a cardiologist to see about going off of it. I did that last December, and the cardiologist agreed that I should try to go off the drug, so I did. I made it until late February, but then the arrhythmia returned. I was very bummed out about this, but my wife kept telling me that I was being a baby about it all. She pointed out, quite rightly, that instead of bitching about such drugs I should be thankful that they exist at all and can improve my life. But you get to a certain age and your doctor is prescribing this drug for blood pressure and that drug for cholesterol and this drug for this and that drug for that, and eventually you begin to feel like a walking pharmacy. I went back on the flecainide, but now they wanted me to take warfarin as well, an anti-clotting agent that is often prescribed when atrial fibrillation is ongoing. I had to have weekly blood-tests to make sure my blood was properly thinned out.

So by the time May rolled around I was rather depressed about things. I had successfully completed a half-marathon at the beginning of April, but I was feeling more and more as though I was on the downhill side of life's journey. But then an extraordinary thing happened. It began when I had to go back to the cardiologist to see a specialist, an electrophysiologist (specialist in heart arrhythmias). This guy doesn't have an office in Athens, I had to drive to Columbus to see him. When I got there I was amazed at the facilities: a building the size of a large hotel filled with nothing but cardiologists. I walked into the lobby and it felt as though I was about to book myself onto a flight at a major airport. I mentioned this to the lady checking me in but she didn't think it was funny. After my two-hour drive I had to use those other facilities, but when I got there the door was locked. I had to wait a long, long time for the guy in there to finish. I began to worry that he might be having a heart attack or something, this being a place for people with heart trouble and all. When the door opened I saw what the problem was: he was burdened with a large oxygen tank and lots of tubes to deal with. I held the door for him and said a Hail Mary for him as I did my business. In the lobby I saw many such people: most of them elderly, all of them frail-looking. I felt like some kind of intruder: what was I doing here? I just ran a half-marathon, for goodness sake! My heart is healthy! I find that I often have to remind myself of that, because both my father and his brother died of heart attacks, and I don't want to continue the family tradition.

Well, to cut to the chase, as it were, the electrophysiologist told me that I do, indeed, have a very healthy heart, and that I could stop taking not only the flecainide, but also the warfarin and the beta-blocker I had been taking for my blood pressure. He told me that the arrhythmia may return, but I should just take two flecainide pills and see if it goes away. He says that there are lots of folks who do this, and that I shouldn't let my arrhythmia define my life. Well, let me tell you, it was as though someone had just flipped a switch, and my quality of life was improved immeasurably, just like that! I felt as though a huge burden had been lifted from my shoulders. On my way out, I made it a point to get a chuckle out of the lady who had checked me in, and I made my way back to Athens.

But in spite of feeling much better about my own prospects, I felt a new burden. I kept thinking about all of the other people in that waiting room, and the man with the oxygen tank in particular. It occurred to me that my wife was right: I had been a remarkably big baby about everything, and that many people--indeed, most sick people--have it far worse than I. If I had bothered to think about it, I would have known this much earlier, because you can't go into a hospital to get weekly blood tests without noticing all of the really badly off people wandering the halls. But at that time, of course, I was so self-absorbed that I didn't really notice them, unless they were ahead of me in line at the blood lab, keeping from getting to my other business as quickly as I would have liked. Now, the quality of my own life had just improved immensely, but what have I ever done to improve the quality of anyone else's life? There would not be a hotel-sized building filled with nothing but cardiologists if there were not a lot of people out there needing extremely complicated and expert care--I'm no cardiologist, but surely there are things I could be doing.

Perhaps one of the first things I can do is to get some perspective on things. I had--still have--a mild and minor problem. A friend of mine from high school has survived breast cancer; another friend from graduate school has survived kidney cancer; one of my colleagues has survived prostate cancer. All of these people have dealt with their difficulties and done some remarkable things--it seems to me that there is a sense in which they have dealt with their major difficulties with more grace than I have with my minor ones, and that should be food for thought.

But another thing that I can do is to be more prospective--instead of getting all scrupulous about my sins of omission I can look forward to the opportunity to make some changes in that regard. Time, in this sense, really is grace: the gift of yet another chance--further proof, if more were needed, of God's merciful kindness and compassion.

Ascension seems to be an essentially forward-looking feast in just this sense: as Christ was taken up from among them, the disciples might have chosen to dwell on the past, to regret the loss of the form of experience that they had enjoyed with the Lord for so long. Instead they looked forward to Pentecost and the continued life in the Kingdom that now is upon us. Now there seems to be plenty of time to go out and flip someone else's switch for a change!

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Stay Tuned

As if to remind me that I do not, in fact, live all by myself in a cave filled with books and jazz cds I have received a number of inquiries from friends and strangers regarding whether I ever intend to write anything else for this, or any other, blog. If they had asked me just three months ago I might have hemmed and hawed and said something like "I've probably already overstayed my welcome". A number of interesting things have come my way since then, however, and some of them strike me as rather blogworthy.

First, the philosophy department here at Ohio University has just finished a three-day colloquium with Bas Van Fraassen, Emeritus professor of philosophy at Princeton University and Distinguished professor of philosophy at San Francisco State University, author of such seminal works in the philosophy of science as The Scientific Image and Quantum Mechanics: An Empiricist Interpretation. His most recent book, Scientific Representation, was the focus for our colloquium and I can honestly say that it is the best book in the philosophy of science that I have read in the last three years, and among the best books in philosophy generally that I have ever read. It is erudite, well-argued, thorough, thought-provoking, and just a plain old-fashioned page-turner. It presents some arguments that, for Van Fraassn, are rather new: he seems to be moving away from some of his older views towards a new, anti-realist view that he calls structuralist empiricism. I hope to discuss some of his arguments in a few future posts.

Second, I've come across a fascinating new book on St. Augustine's theological epistemology in the De Trinitate that has got me to thinking anew about some of the issues that I have explored before in this forum, and as I work my way through a more thorough re-reading of this book, I suspect that I will find that I have more to say along those lines.

Finally, on a more personal note, I have recently begun to explore Benedictine spirituality with some interest, and will be exploring the possibility of becoming an Oblate; in addition I have also answered the call of the Diocese of Steubenville for men interested in serving the Church in the Permanent Diaconate. Both of these steps open up some very new territory for me, and I find that in thinking through each of them, I have made some rather startling discoveries both about my faith and about myself.

So this blog is not yet moribund, as long as one doesn't count sheer boringness as a measure of such things.