Saturday, February 09, 2013

The Road to Damascus

Last night I began my Aspirancy program with an overnight retreat at the St. Teresa Retreat Center in Columbus. The Aspirancy program is the first step in the (rather long) road to the Permanent Deaconate. The Aspirancy year is spent in formation and discernment, with monthly meetings like the one I had this weekend, in which one listens to talks about prayer and discernment, gets to know one's fellow Aspirants and their wives, and begins the hard work of introspection and prayer that one hopes will lead to spiritual growth.

I didn't have any trouble getting to the general neighborhood of the Retreat Center, because I had been to that area several times last year for follow-ups to two surgeries for a torn and detached retina in my left eye. My familiarity with the area didn't keep me from turning into the wrong parking lot when I got there, however. The place seemed right to me: it was a large, churchy-looking building, with cars in the lot and people milling around and going in. So imagine my surprise when I got to the door and a friendly woman greeted me with "Happy Shabbat!" Temple Israel, it seems, is right next door to St. Teresa's.

I might not have made that mistake if the lot had been better lighted, but since my surgeries I just can't read signs in the dark as well as I used to, so even though there was a large sign right at the entrance to the lot, I couldn't make out what it said. I suppose I convinced myself, mentally, that there was enough writing on it to say St. Teresa's Retreat Center, or something. This is something that I will have to get used to, and it was bound to happen whether or not I had a torn retina: old people simply cannot see all that well at night. Aging is hard, kiddies, so don't get cocky while you're still young: be humble and help out old geezers like me when they get lost, like the nice lady at Temple Israel did when I remarked, in response to her greeting, "I think I'm in the wrong place." She smiled. "Yes," she said, "I thought you had that look."

It is definitely a little difficult not to be grumpy about the gradual decay of my eyesight, but there is one aspect of it that I try to keep in view (get it?) on the days when things look particularly blurry. When I was getting prepped for my first surgery I was was literally terrified. I remember thinking to myself, "This is what it is like to be really scared." I thought I had been scared of other things, of course: I was nervous about the birth of my first child and the implications it might have for my life; I was nervous about getting tenure; one is almost always nervous, these days, about money. But being nervous is not really the same thing as being scared, even though at the time those things did seem kind of scary in their own way. Now that I have experienced real fear, however, I know that they were not really scary at all. I'm not saying that what I went through last year was anything like the kinds of really terrifying things that many people have to go through every day: military personel, ghetto kids, cancer patients, people in Syria--these people have it far worse than I ever have or will have it. But, for what it's worth, getting prepped for eye surgery was the scariest thing I've been through in my life. What made it bearable was the presence of competent and reassuring people. The nurses, the anesthesiologist, my surgeon: they were all very professional, soothing, and in several instances they did their job best simply by being there. When you're signing forms explaining that you acknowledge that you might die, the presence of a calm woman with obvious expertise and compassion is a remarkable balm for the soul. My surgeon, too, although he constantly put off my compliments with remarks about "just doing my job", was such a remarkable combination of care and technical excellence that I was sure that I would come through everything OK. And indeed, I did.

What has been most remarkable to me about the whole experience is not just the fact that it seems like just about anything can be fixed these days, but also the extent to which we need each other. Not just for technical reasons (such as, I can't operate on my own eye): we need each other just to be there, to care and make manifest the bond of humanity that ties us all together. The growing awareness in me of this deep and essential connectedness to others, a sense of community that increased as I underwent my recovery, was what motivated me to make my application to the Permanent Deaconate Program. This is my chance to be there for others who need someone, anyone, to be living signs of God's love for them. I had considered applying four years ago, when the first Deaconate class began, but I missed the deadline. That turns out not to have been a bad thing: for various reasons, four years ago was not the best time for me to embark upon this journey. For one thing, both of my children were much younger. Now they are in very different places, and so am I.

I am in a very new and, I believe, very good place, because of my surgeries. The concept of God's providence was always one that mystified me in the past, though I thought I understood it intellectually. Now I think I understand it experientially as well as intellectually, and that makes a big difference. Indeed, for me, it has made all the difference: something very good can, indeed, come about as the result of something very bad.

I am very grateful that I did not have to go through what St. Paul went through on the road to Damascus: I am not going to go blind, thanks to some wonderful doctors and nurses in Columbus. But I had my own little Damascus journey last year, and if God is willing, I hope to follow a path not unlike the one followed by St. Paul, at least in the sense of finding a way to see with great clarity even though my eyes are not what they once were.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Alvin Plantinga Receives Rescher Prize

David Theroux of The Independent Institute reports that Alvin Plantinga, the Jellema Chair in Philosophy at Calvin College, has won the Nicolas Rescher Prize for Contributions to Systematic Philosophy, awarded by the University of Pittsburgh's Department of Philosophy. You can read David's announcement here.

Plantinga has been very active in philosophical discussions of the rationality of religious belief, and has participated in public forums with some well-known skeptics. Some of his arguments seem rather strange to me (for example, he has argued that if evolutionary theory is true, it is a disaster for naturalism), but his work on the so-called "ontological proof" for the existence of God has kept an otherwise arcane logical problem on the front burner for many years now, and has prompted a wide variety of responses from the philosophical community. He has written extensively on the concept of epistemic warrant, and has deployed his version of it in defense of the rationality of religious belief. You can find links to many of his papers and books at The Independent Institute's announcement of the prize linked to above.