Category Archives: Religion

Inner Space: The Final Crappiest Frontier

lThese are the voyages of the Starship Ken’s Brain. This is so far a 70-year mission, it’s ongoing, and it’s still a pain in the ass.

And now, 12:15 PM, it is a source of gratitude and hope.

Today’s Yom Kippur. The Jewish Day of Atonement, t’shuvah, turning and re-turning. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’ve hated it forever, but the required in-dwelling of the day and what it compels from us does not make me thunderously happy.

I’ve been up most of the night. I just got home from the morning service and Yizkor. Right now, I’m fried. Why was I up? Was it just because I ate last night after Kol Nidre, that plea to our common Maker for relief from our ill-considered vows? Because I sat down after I got home and ate? If that is what God requires, if he is that petty, well then I’m sorry. No, I’m not. I fed Misha, my cat too–off my plate, in fact (he loves nibbling on Daddy’s roast beef). I’ve been advised more than once from several directions that faith is about life, not killing yourself in the name of Law, or even of minhag (tradition with the force of Law). We are enjoined to do what we need to in order to preserve ourselves through the coming year. “Therefore choose Life.” To grab the Star Trek motif again, life is the Prime Directive. No, I am not copping out on myself when I say that my health just sucks and today feels precarious; and that having reached 70, I’m not the man who could fast as I did 30 years ago and float through the day on a wave of hunger fueled by fervor. I feel plain crappy, and now I know I’ve not lasted until the end of the day and the sundown that ironically isn’t coming to Western Massachusetts because it’s been raining all day. But that isn’t the point.

I need a nap. In the meantime, I needed to postpone any nap until I at least reached Yizkor, the service of prayers and reflections in which we remember our departed. Like in the madhouse movie with Jack Nicholson: Heaven holds the faithful departed. What can I say?–my parents weren’t terribly faithful to tradition, and in my father’s case, to one another. They weren’t much as parents, but that’s not the point, either. They were my parents, and they deserve to be remembered and prayed for with respect and the best wishes I have, or wish I had.

Last night, at Kol Nidre, I was damn near reduced to a pile of blubbering rubble. Reflection, indeed. I was dredging up the mistakes not only of the last year–and boy, were they stacked floor-to-ceiling–but of a whole lifetime. Of opportunities missed that I ought not to have missed. Of opportunities taken at the expense of others and of myself. I don’t like those kinds of memories. Too often, they are not about ourselves in relation to God, but about ourselves in relation to the people we may have wronged, even inadvertently. In one of the late Chaim Potok’s novels, In The Beginning, one of the protagonist’s yeshiva ravs warns him, in the immediate aftermath of the Shoa, that he may have to go to the graves of the dead and beg their forgiveness for his trespasses against them. And what will make it peculiarly difficult in the post-1945 post-Holocaust world, is that he may not even know where the dead are buried. How many of our dead ended up as ashes turned to muck at the bottom of the Vistula?

How can I expect my parents to ask me for my forgiveness? I gave it to them years ago. Often I was “more sinned against than sinning,” but: I ran up a few sins against them, of course, especially against my mother, on my own. Sins of theft, of entitlement, of payback, of arrogance, of the nastiest forms of pride. I wanted much, and often I gave too little. Okay, I played the flute at my parents’ graves years back; they were both musically-inclined (they passed it along to me, their only child), so it may have helped square accounts just a bit.

But today is the day to remember anyway. There is a liturgical poem, Eleh Ezkerah, “These I Remember,” that recounts the martyrdom of the Sages in Roman-occupied Palestine in 70 CE. It’s a gory and frightful remembrance. We get to read about how Rabbi Akiba had his skin flayed off with iron combs. That’s bad enough. But remembering extends outward into more recent history. When I heard the poem recited in 1983, at Tisha b’Av in a very Orthodox synagogue in West Orange, New Jersey, the rabbi added names of the last stops for the departed and unburied to the chanted names of the Sages: Auschwitz, Majdanek, Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka. German killing fields running 24×7 in the conquered province of Poland. It was a horror to have to hear those names yet again.

More than that. We recall the names of our errors, of our sins (though “sin” is so out of favor anymore). We may forgive ourselves, and the souls of the dead–wherever their bodies have gone–may forgive us as God forgives us. But the names remain. So the old Yiddish motto: Schvar zu sein a Yid. Hard to be a Jew. No lie. And it could be that at some times in any of our lives, we all become Jews.

Today I prayed for my parents, and caught myself growing tears yet again. I have not prayed for them in 16 years. It’s not a question of whether they “deserved” it or could hear and feel my soul reaching toward them. The issue on the table is that I needed to do it, not only for them but also for myself, to connect the generations, as imperfect as we have been. It is a way to forgive not only them, but to remember and forgive myself. And that is a tremendous spiritual practice.

No, Yom Kippur is not a fun day. It’s not supposed to be. It’s an exercise in remembrance, forgiveness, and resolving to make blessings even in places and at times where there’d been nothing but imprecations.

L’Shana Tova

1. How an Apostate Was Made

Out of some closet or other to create not a barbaric yawp but a titanic yawn. “Oh God, not one of Ken’s obsessions again!”

Yes. That again. So get over it. Or, as my mother would have said, “Geh kahkt auf in Yahm.” Here is my journey’s end. I hope.rh

Back in 1997 a number of strange and terrible things happened to me. First, my marriage ended, albeit informally and initially for the time being. My wife and I recognized that we’d been living inside a lie. Or I did. And I did not want to be the kind of man I’d become. Most of you know the overly-revealed details. Why redisplay them now?

Anyway, I moved into my own place after a peculiarly tense week in mid-April 1997. I was so unaccustomed to fending for myself that women in the ShopRite near my house had to help the helpless waif (me) negotiate my way around the market. I would not dignify it with the label PTSD. I’d simply say to myself, “What the fuck am I doing?” But God bless those ladies who assisted me.

Then came Monday, and back to work I went after spending a week on “vacation” moving 13 miles back and forth repeatedly between Wayne and Lyndhurst, New Jersey. Presumably, I drank myself comatose on Sunday night. This is news?

For whatever reason, when I got to work on Monday, I remembered something I’d forgotten, and that suddenly loomed as critical. That would be the night of the first Passover Seder: like most Jewish holidays, a time for family companionship. And suddenly I had no family. (“General Lee, I have no Division!”) I had cordially been not invited to sit with my wife and my kids. If my mother or mother-in-law had been alive, I would have been cordially disinvited from sitting with them, too.

Reconnecting with a faith I’d cast aside after my mother died in 1992 suddenly acquired the emotional level of a Class A Crisis. I wanted to rejoin in time for Pesach. But there was no place for me to go. The logical step seemed to be to call Jewish Federations in north Jersey and New York City. Whoever heard of a Federation without some communal outreach?

They had.

When I made some calls, I was informed that nobody had community Seders for the solitary Jew with no home inside his own tradition.  I was frozen out.

I got crazy-desperate. I’d tried to keep personal business off the Internet, but this time to hell with propriety. I posted a cry for help to a mailing list called Opera-L. Lots of Jews, with even more opinions about everything from Marcella Sembrich and Emma Eames to Roberto Alagna and Placido Domingo. Right, a list for discussions of opera, an art of which I’ve been particularly fond since I was 14 years old. Is there a vacant seat…is there a table…is there anything for a solitary Jew on one of the most critical nights of the year, and at one of the critical turning points of his life? And the answer was always the same: lots of sympathy but no seat. It wasn’t a “fuck off” message, but the impact was the same.

At Morgan Stanley, where I worked at the time, we had to put a slug into our email with our contact information. So around two PM, the phone rang. It was a true gentleman named Rabbi Mark Loeb, Z”L, who led a congregation in Pikesville, Maryland, in the Baltimore suburbs. He said, “No Jew should be alone on the first night of Pesach. There’s a prepaid Metroliner ticket waiting for you at Penn Station. Take the 4 PM train to Baltimore, take a cab to my address, call when you get there, I’ll take care of that when you get here. You’ll be at my Seder, you’ll stay over, and I’ll drive you back to the Amtrak station in the morning.”

I couldn’t believe it. People don’t do things like that for total strangers. Do they? But I remembered God’s direction to the Jews about to enter their own land after their enslavement in Egypt: You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourself been strangers in the land of Egypt.My boss told me to get my stuff and go. I rushed to 33rd Street, picked up my ticket, and went to Rabbi Mark’s Seder. And I had a wonderful, haimische time. The food was catered; we sang the old songs I remembered from my misspent childhood. Mark sat up with me until 2 AM and simply listened to me unload. I was two days out of my marriage and I was very much in shock. He told me about his opera trips to Vienna and London, including one funny-horrible tale of a man who said that one of the greatest conductors he ever heard at the Vienna Staatsoper was “Der Jude”: Leonard Bernstein. Oy. And in the morning, again good to his word, Mark drove me to the Baltimore Amtrak station.

But then I had to confront my Jewish future. And I discovered that I had none.

I’d been at what amounted to the world’s greatest mustering-out party, and the idea of going back into congregational Judaism where everything is politicized, seemed not just alien but even repellent. Yet I had Cleopatra’s “immortal longings in me,” and a need for the House of Faith. My complacency was gone. All that was left was a wound, a trench in which I was the only occupant, and which was crying for some form of belief to fill it.

Well, God is One, but there are different ways of expressing and reaching that Divine Presence. And I found one that was one in three, and that had been dormant beneath the surface for years. It was called Christianity. And it long had been seductive and calling to me. I didn’t want to do this. I figured I was mad and courting total dispossession. But the pull was there. It would not go away. I read a website called Leaflets of Faith (I think it still exists, though perhaps under a diiferent name), and it had simple instructions for someone drawn to–in my case–Catholicism. Talk to a priest. Pray. Recite “Jesus, Lord, lead me where you want me to go, and I will try to follow.” I finally forced myself to say the words out loud at about 4 PM on June 15, 1997. It was as though a stone sitting on me for years had been lifted. The air in the room began to move again. “Oh my God, I think I’m a Christian.”

Just like that. Catholics call it the Baptism of Desire.

I’d had lots of desire in my life, but this was the first time I’d ever experienced desire on the spiritual level.

In any case, I began to receive Catholic instruction at a parish a few blocks from my house. It was heady stuff and I found it glorious. I even stopped off at daily Mass in the early evenings on the way home from work. I could have faked it and received the Sacrament, but I treated myself like a Victorian bride approaching her wedding night. “Not until we’re married.” And I married the Church on April 11, 1998. No, I will not follow that metaphor any further, except that by the end I’d become like Irene Forsyte married to Soames.

I was “adopted” by a priest who made me feel dirty because I was involved with a woman without benefit of clergy, even if we both were civilly divorced. In my insane state of mind, I felt encumbered and horribly guilty for everything.

2. Enter the Episcopal Church

If you fool me twice, shame on me. And I was fooled a lot. The priest who became my confessor was tearing me apart. Call it Masochism 101. Eventually I “defected” to the Episcopal Church. Many Catholics call it “Catholic Lite,” but it’s not. Same difference with Lutheranism, another spin-off from Rome. In any blessed event, I’d had enough of the beatings that would continue until morale improved. My morale improved when I got out.

Of course, it was not a straight line. Few things in anyone’s life are. I went back and forth for years. Catholic, Episcopal, Episcopal, Catholic, etc., etc, ad my nauseum. Everything but B’ahai. I even went to Quaker meetings here and there. I was the Hamlet of religious affiliation. I could not make up my mind. When I did, in 2007, because of a wonderful Episcopal priest in Rumson, NJ, I became a lot happier and less filled with tensions. I’d quit drinking some time before, I was taking medication for my mental issues, and I wasn’t quite that prone to guilt anymore. Anyone’s guilt, including my own. And I didn’t have to fight the Catechism of the Catholic Church anymore.

3. T’shuvah?

I’ll spare you repeats of the story of homelessness, of utter ruin. If you want to read that, be prepared to pay me. (I accept PayPal. If you think I’m kidding, toss some money into my account as a tip. It’s rainermaria@comcast.net.) When I was rescued from homelessness at the end of 2013, even though I’d been going to Catholic Masses because the parish was near the shelter where I lived, I finally found an Episcopal parish near my new home. It was low-keyed and not at all stressful. No pressure, no drama. That’s novel just by itself.

Finally, there was a phone conversation with a friend. I’ve known her for years. She paid for me to have my cat checked over by a local vet after the beast ran away and returned through the window like the Demon Lover after four horrible days of fear. I said to her, “You know what I did, don’t you?” Guilt, thy name is Wolman. She informed me that yes, she knew, but that I never stopped being a Jew. An apostate, perhaps, a meshummed, marching under a borrowed flag: but the door was always open for return, no questions asked. And if the questions were asked, I was under no obligation to answer them. From Christian or Jew.

Amazingly, in North Adams, Massachusetts, the last place I’d have expected to find a Jewish community outside Boston, there I found one. A synagogue. A rabbi. A whole set of practices forgotten, or so different from what I thought I knew that I could scarcely believe the world into which I re-entered.

4. “Who Is a Jew?”

That was a real popular question to ask, one Jew to another. It was generally asked by ultra-Orthodox (either Chassidic, Mitnaged, or Haredi, and look it up in your Funk & Wagnall’s) to attack Jews who either entered the faith by a non-Orthodox path, or who observed it differently. It led to ugly confrontations, especially on Bitnet and Usenet message boards like soc.culture.jewish where, even in the 1980s, I was one of several compulsive posters who was treated like the goy I later became. It may have been good for honing argumentation skills, but it was a lousy way to practice one’s beliefs. And, apart from any other factors, it may have given me the last push toward the egress.

Well, I fit the classic formula: I was born of a Jewish mother. Actually, that may be a pretty lousy definition. Retrospective history has by now become offensive. The matrilineal model is one that Hitler used. This is a valid test? There are even some groups, especially among the Sephardim, who will not recognize as valid even the classic Orthodox conversion of a non-Jew. A man, for instance, undergoes instruction, followed by adult circumcision, so he can be treated like a piece of Hormel pepperoni? So the question arises: who cares what you say? Who are you to define who is a Jew? If Catholics have Baptisms of Desire, what stops Jews from having Yiddishkeit by Love and Need? In the old conversion method, if a person went to a rabbi and asked to convert, the rabbi was supposed to try three times to talk the prospective convert out of it. “Do you understand you are asking to throw in your lot with a despised people?” If the prospective convert persisted those three times, the actual process could begin.

I went through a far more informal version of this examen when I gravitated toward the Church in 1997. One priest, a friar at the Church of St. Francis of Assisi on West 32nd Street, told me that the best man he ever knew was his father, a lapsed Baptist. It was his mother’s influence that put him on the path to ordination as a priest of the Franciscan order, and to the Guardianship of this vital inner city parish that actually took seriously the Corporal Works of Mercy, specifically feeding the hungry. I was told to search my motives. I didn’t know what they were except that I was answering a call of some kind. I moved inertially. In the town where I lived, there was one stumbling Episcopal church where there wasn’t even a regular priest. There was one Missouri Synod Lutheran church. And there were four Catholic parishes. For a goy-in-training, this became a no-brainer.

And there was no synagogue between Rutherford to the north and Irvington to the south. Nothing. In nearby Kearny, a former synagogue had been turned into a Portuguese-language Pentecostal church. If I’d wanted to remain Jewish, I’d picked the wrong place to live: the Ridge Road and Kearny Avenue band known as Cancer Alley that extended from Rutherford to Newark.

When I moved after I determined that Western Massachusetts was the right spot at the only possible time (was life in a mens’ shelter better?), I accepted home where I found it. The late Russell Edson put it this way in one of his prose poems: “This may not be the best of all possible worlds, but it’s the only one that showed up.” But some form of providence got me here. Followed by the seemingly casual phone conversation that set the chain of my being back in motion.

Yes, I am compulsive joiner. Yes, I need to belong to something with a name. Yes, I need a framework that helps me express who I am at this late stage of my life. You don’t need to approve it. You don’t need to label me an apostate again. I am. I have been. I might even be a double-agent! You don’t have to ask me what I will be next week. All I know is that I have followed the promptings as they’ve come to me. I’ve picked up the Day-Glo bread crumbs where they fell. And I’ve fought my way through multiple levels of doubt to where I stand now: in doubt but in awareness of what happened, and perhaps even why.

5. Along the Way….

I’m not going to spell out thanks by name, though I perhaps should. People along the way guided and sometimes (in one case) bullied me. Everyone got me to where I am now. And I am grateful for the prods from all directions at once.

The good part is that I am the accumulation of every tradition in which I’ve tried to reside. That’s not some Dorothy-in-Oz thing about there being no place like home. It’s a deepening of who I have been and in what I am.

Tonight begins the Jewish New Year. Rosh Hashanah. This has been going on for a really long time by now as time is reckoned. It’s the year 5775. I went to my first Hebrew School class back in the Bronx in 5714, also known as 1953. Days have gone by. It’s been one hell of a trip. Is it over? I hope to God this part of it is, anyway. L’Shana Tova, folks. Happy New Year.

The faith journey into Hell

I grew up with Fear as my God, found the Judaism of my birth in the late 1970s, and lost it again in the 1990s. For years I tried to practice my birth faith. Then, in 1997, it rejected me. I separated from my wife the weekend before Pesach and was living alone in an apartment in northern New Jersey. After years of willful exile, I needed to reconnect. I put out a desperate cry for help via email, the phone, and a mailing list because I needed to reunite with my spiritual center: or so I thought.

“Establishment” Judaism had no place for me at any table in New York or New Jersey. “Do not turn your back on the stranger because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” How easily we forget!

I got one reply, from a rabbi (now deceased) in Pikesville, MD, who left a prepaid Metroliner ticket for me at Penn Station, along with an invitation to his home for the first Seder. “No Jew,” said Rabbi Mark Loeb to me, “should be alone on the first night of Pesach.” I went to what amounted to a glorious mustering-out party. When I returned to Jersey, “The long loneliness” described by the Servant of God Dorothy Day engulfed me again, worse than before. I began to get a sense that I was being drawn back to the attraction of The Cross, the same way it drew me in the 1970s. I did not want it. Separated or not, I had two children I had tried to raise as Jews. How could I do this? Better, how could I NOT? I could stay and shut up, become the same misery-ridden Jew as I was miserable husband. But that would not work either.

On a hot Sunday afternoon, June 15, 1997, I found myself praying aloud to Jesus with the promptings of a website called “Leaflets of Faith” (http://www.catholicmissionleaflets.org/). I was terrified and exhilarated at the same time. I began attending daily Masses in Manhattan, refusing to approach the railing for Communion even though nobody would know: God would and I would. I entered the Rite of Christian Initiation (RCIA) program at a local parish near my house.

People tried to talk me out of it. Someone I loved. Even a Franciscan priest who said the best man he ever met was his lapsed-Baptist father (yet he was now the Guardian of a vitally important Catholic parish in midtown Manhattan!). I persevered and was received into the Roman Catholic Church on April 11, 1998, at the Easter Vigil.

And I promptly ran into myself, a collection of disconnected synapses, neuroses, bipolar symptoms, and alcoholic behaviors. I was being torn apart by the same guilt that had driven me out of Judaism. Disloyal husband, indifferent father, out of control. Womanizer in the making and on the make. Short-cutting employee with a volatile temper. I made myself spiritually if not physically sick. I had a confessor who insisted I was violating God’s plan for me. But how could I know that? How could HE know that? A Jesuit I knew as a spiritual director tried to talk me off the ledge but he could not. I was bound on self-destruction with my soul if not via a weapon.

When I began to heal my alcoholism and manic-depression in late 1999 and early 2000, the guilt began to fade. So I changed denominations. Makes sense, right? You’re getting better so you allow yourself to relapse. Makes perfect sense. Yet…I was warmly received and warmly loved. I did not have to fight anymore.

And yet this was not about ME. Maybe there really was a plan and I was playing games around is margins by ignoring God’s requirements for me. Poverty (involuntary), chastity (not by choice, either), obedience–but to whom? Another Jesuit I met with several times suggested I was not supposed to get an easy ride into and through Faith, that it was supposed to be difficult. Well, it has been.

Every day since 1998 has been relentless pain. Oh, not because I abandoned Judaism–when I tried to go back in 2004 via the repentance of the mikveh, it did not take and I felt even worse than before. I have lived in lonely communion ever since. I fear I have sawed off the limb behind me and only now realize I have hit the ground head-first.

I present no definitive solutions for me or for anyone else. I know only that my defections and “flip-flops” made me more miserable than I ever imagined. My only hope is that there IS some hope.

I date my true fall into fear, into adherence to the Gospel of Wealth, and my subsequent fall into abject poverty, from that moment. Defiance? Recompense? Payback, I’ve heard, is Hell; and I’ve been in it now for years. I wonder daily why God has preserved my life, why he has allowed me sobriety regardless of this almost daily temptation to drink, why one day I am almost certain to relapse into the death of the spirit that I fear as much as I crave it as the end to this misery. The end to the fear of fear. The end of psychiatric hospitalization. The end of old age. The end of imprisonment.

I lost home, found home, abandoned home. Where am I now?

At Last…Good Friday

The title that comes to mind is The Stripping of the Altars. It was among the eeriest sensations I’ve had in a long time: walking into a church denuded of ornament except for a thick wooden cross at the steps leading up the altar.

 

Salvador Dali, Crucifixion

Salvador Dali, Crucifixion

I was there as one of five readers. Our text was the Passion as described by St. John, from Jesus’ arrest to (my reading) Joseph of Aramathea and Nicodemus wrapping the body in fragrances and interring it. 

I know the story. I’ve been to other Good Friday services in various churches. But this one got to me. Perhaps because I was one of the lectors in what I suspect is the most unique moment for lectors during the entire liturgical year. Laymen do not get to read the Gospels. Today five of us did.

In spite of knowing the story, reciting John’s account of the arrest, trial, and crucifixion is emotionally draining. The reading that fell to me–even though we all know what happens on Sunday–is immensely sad. Each of us finished the reading by extinguishing a candle. By the time the last candle was out, it was as though the light had gone out of the world, and would be rekindled only at the Easter Vigil. We do not do Tenebrae in my parish (does anyone besides Trinity Church in lower Manhattan?), but the feeling of darkness was sufficiently intense.

It is good to kneel at the large cross afterwards, then to sit in quiet at home. I don’t know if blogging counts as quiet. I know grading papers does not, but render unto our students what is theirs, even if they may not like it very much.

Lent X: In Memoriam Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Grace, cheap perhaps.

bonhoefferI’m not used to this sort of thing. I like to hang around theological types but I don’t “get” theology because I have a terrible difficulty absorbing conceptual thought or reflection.

I’m aware the phrase “cheap grace” came from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship. Dietrich Bonhoeffer happens to be one of my few heros because he had the courage to do something I could never do in a million years: as I heard it, he surrendered a tenured position at Union Theological Seminary in New York and returned to Germany to join the resistance against Hitler and the Nazis.

It is a total coincidence that I thought of Bonhoeffer this afternoon. That is to say, it was a coincidence if you believe such things are possible. I am far from sure about that.

Because on this day 64 years ago Dietrich Bonhoeffer was stripped naked and hanged from a gallows in the Flossenburg concentration camp, only weeks before the liberating armies of the U.S. and Great Britain. As much as I am certain he was not death obsessed and ripe for martyrdom, I think he knew he would not get out of the war alive.

I don’t entirely understand Bonhoeffer’s concept of grace, cheap or expensive. I am certain that cheap grace leaves us fundamentally unchanged, while authentic grace both changes us and exacts a heavy price. It required an amendment of life, or maybe, at the very least, a painful examination of where we are as opposed to where we should be.

The words of the Jesus Prayer that lives deeply inside the Orthodox Christian tradition: Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. That’s all there is. You can say it with a prayer rope to aid the repetitions. You don’t need to. Because I suspect Bonhoeffer would agree with the fundamental premise: we are sinners. The best of us is sinful. Unless we confront it and own the totality of our errors, the harder it becomes to expiate those sins. They seem to keep piling up like spiritual dust bunnies that take over your house.

Cheap grace is obtained by perfunctory Confessions or Reconciliations. Maybe you cannot fool God but you can fool yourself and you can fool the priest hearing you. It is obtained by receiving the Host at the Eucharist and then going out and, having consumed the Body and Blood of Christ, and then returning to the round of personal and public betrayals, of screwing around and cheating others, of acting as though the sacrament alone would free us from the responsibility to behave morally. The Sacraments become freestanding and disconnected from our “real” lives which are of course infinitely more important than the dog and pony show that happens in church or in a reconciliation room. And so we indulge in the delusion that the grace we receive is the real deal when instead it’s a piece of dry wafer and a sip of wine. 

I am as much to blame as anyone. Why tonight I was sent these thoughts is beyond me. I suspect I am being enjoined to read Bonhoeffer. Not reread him, but actually surmount my learning disabilities and concept-phobic behavior and push through the unforgiving force of Bonhoeffer’s prose. In other words, start my spiritual practice or penance (we do we recoil at that word?) after Easter and start reading a theologian who greatly honored but I fear may go into unsettling territory.

Which only means he was doing his job. And maybe it’s time for me to help him.

May be the many Graces of this Easter–both pain and joy–be with all of us.

Lent III: Maybe inability is a gift

I spent several days on a posting about why I cannot forgive several people whose presence in my life has been a source of pain. I was naming them. And something ate at me. Not the legality or merely the ethics of naming names, but the whole idea of dragging someone through the mud simply for a gratification and cheap thrill that I couldn’t get anymore.

What happened to the saying “Revenge is the best form of living well”?  I like the emphasis there better than in the more familiar version, because in the reversal is the real meaning of the the statement. It find a different and more chilling expression in the words of a Talmudic sage: “When someone comes to kill you, kill him first.”

I find myself wanting, desperately, to name their names, to spell out what I believe in my heart are their crimes against me, crimes taken not from reaction to “my part” and the parts of Recovery programs that are blame-the-victim nonsense, but because Evil exists, and it has thrived in the bodies and souls of these warped human beings.

But I cannot do it. And there are times when I curse my veneer of Christianity as being something perhaps more than a veneer, something that has transformed into an honest-to-God ethic.

I hate it but I’m stuck with it.

Another day in the desert. What a break for me. The guilty remain unnoted.

Lent II: A brief anatomie of Stress

In the interests of fairness and plagiarism (hey, it’s my work here), I wrote this as a comment on my dear friend Jane’s blog, Acts of Hope. She talked about renouncing stress for the Lenten season and I had a problem. Well, so what else is new?–so my reply is reprinted here with edits.


Lent is also the time to speak what you feel in order to free up the breathing apparatus and the damaged soul. Therefore:

Welcome to the culture of murder.

Many of us who have labored in unrewarding vineyards for years know this as a truth. Stress kills. I believe it is intended to do so. It is the human perversion of instinct and reactions to threat. It is threat in the name of control. It exists to thin whatever herd there is.

David Mamet did not tell lies in Glengarry Glen Ross about the corrosive effect of a culture of Gimme and Fuck You. Nor did Joseph Heller make up stories when he presented an ad agency in Something Happened where the boss reveled in seeing his employess bent over with fear from spastic colons. Fear, you understand, increases your precious Productivity before it causes a fatal heart attack at age 45.

This is not a new idea. The first Roman Catholic Archbishop of New York, “Dagger John” Hughes, said of his priests “I won’t have any men in my diocese who I can’t control!”

At least he was honest. Really.

Stress is not a God-given attribute of the human spirit. Fear, however, may very well be: and the corporate principalities of business, education, and the Church are goads to push us to and then beyond our limits by playing to the flight/fight response that is the human animal’s (or animal animal’s) response to what we call fear.

Stress can be manufactured from fear if it’s done in controlled doses. This is most purely visible in commission sales jobs but you can find it in any total environment: the aforementioned Church, academe, or business. Sales personnel are pushed unmercifully to “produce,” meet quotas, forced to adhere to rules of administrative happy horseshit. Faculty are held to the publication fetish. Even non-tenured faculty live and die by their student evaluations, effectively a popularity contest and only secondarily a judgment about whether they learned anything.

Instead of revolting against our environments, usually because we’re “mindful” of economic motives, we shut up and internalize our distress. We look down on ourselves as cowards and prostitutes who “do it for the money” (it’s not really a lie), and we turn against ourselves via the aforementioned spastic colons, insomnia, alcohol and drug addiction, sexual rampages (as long as an orgasm lasts you’re not worrying about your next car payment), spending money we don’t have, and temper tantrums that hit the people nearest to us because we can’t tell our bosses to go screw themselves (can we)?

I don’t believe anyone but ourselves cares a damn about our relationships, either to God or to other people. All that matters to the stress-maker is that you grab the oar and keep pulling. And it’s always Ramming Speed.

I know: breathe. That’s not a choice, it’s autonomic. What about the choices we can actually make?

Welcome to Lent, then. Again.