The poet Jason Shinder died last week. I studied with him at Bennington in the late 90’s. This recent poem in The New Yorker about his mother’s illness has the authority of someone who knows first hand the ravages of sickness.
He was also a really good dancer, and I was once informed by someone watching him do amazing things on the dance floor that he was in the original cast of Grease, the musical. If it wasn’t true, it shoulda been. A fabulous teacher.
For anyone who thinks European society is utterly secularized, it’s interesting to read this article in The Guardian that, in the London mayoral race, religion is actually a prominent issue. Perhaps not in the way that we experience it in the US, but nevertheless. Hmm, I wonder if anyone reading in London might have some firsthand knowledge of this?
Catholics of all sorts have been responding to our call for their stories. They’ve been writing to tell us about their experiences in the Catholic Church — the beauty and the pain and the hope they feel belonging to this vast and ancient tradition. We have been amazed by the depth and feeling with which these people have told us their stories. In an upcoming show in May, you’ll hear for yourself the fruit of these insightful voices.
In the meantime, I am reading a new spiritual memoir about one man’s experience on the path to Catholic priesthood. Andrew Krivak spent nearly a decade of his life training to become a Jesuit priest before leaving the order, marrying, and having children of his own. A Long Retreat: In Search of a Religious Life expresses Krivak’s deep love for the years he spent with the Jesuits and offers a window into the complexities of one man’s discernment. Krivak describes difficult issues — especially the challenges of poverty, chastity, and obedience required of all Jesuits — with unblinking honesty. And he gracefully reconciles his deep appreciation for the wisdom of Saint Augustine of Hippo and Saint Ignatius of Loyola with his very modern life. I have been savoring the book.
Kind of sad and/or maddening news coming from Britain: our former guest Ed Husain has, through his think-tank, received death threats. Whether or not one agrees with the political stance of a co-religionist, the last thing anyone wants to see is more death and violence.
Where are you coming from? The answer: ”I am coming from Mitzrayim.”
Where are you going? The answer: “I am going to Yerushalayim.”
As Barenblat sees it, these questions call us to think more deeply, to examine the nature of our true selves, and open ourselves up to the possibility of emergence from narrow, confined places and look ahead to a more generous future.
My two sons attend an early childcare facility run by a Jewish community center. Although our family’s not Jewish, we, by default, loosely observe shabbat on Friday and various holidays simply through scheduling and songs and rituals celebrated at school (I’ll be taking a vacation day tomorrow to be with my boys because the daycare center is closed).
So, when I read these questions, I was shaken to the core, especially after a tumultuous, stress-filled week of work and family hiccups. They cause me to pause and ask myself about how I define myself and not the outside world. I look to the being who exists in that thin crevasse between closed eyelids and the breaking rays of dawn, and the vestige that reflects in the cab of his truck on the freeway home.
You find that when Israel were in harsh labor in Egypt, Pharaoh decreed against them that they should not sleep at home nor have relations with their wives. Said Rabbi Shimeon bar Chalafta, ‘What did the daughters of Israel do?’ They would go down to draw water from the river, and God would prepare for them little fish in their buckets. And they would sell some of them, and cook some of them, and buy wine with the proceeds, and go to the field and feed their husbands. And when they had eaten and drunk, the women would take the mirrors and look into them with their husbands, and she would say, ‘I am more comely than you,’ and he would say, ‘I am more comely than you.’ And as a result, they would accustom themselves to desire, and they were fruitful and multiplied, and God took note of them immediately. Some of our sages said they bore two children at a time, others said they bore 12 at a time, and still others said 600,000. … And all these numbers from the mirrors. … In the merit of those mirrors which they showed their husbands to accustom them to desire, from the midst of the harsh labor, they raised up all the hosts.
Dr. Zornberg: She says to him, ‘I’m more beautiful than you,’ and he answers her, ‘No, I’m more beautiful than you.’ So there is some kind of dare going on here. There’s some kind of game. As I understand it, it’s a game in which she is challenging him to see his own beauty. If there’s anything left in him at all of any kind of assertiveness, then how could he not somewhere swing back at her when she has said that to him? And the result is — and the Midrash is very unequivocal — the result is that they accustom themselves to desire, an extraordinary expression, as if desire is something that simply has disappeared from their repertoire.
Ms. Tippett: Right.
Dr. Zornberg: And I think there’s a sense here that what she’s got going here makes it possible for each couple to feel that they are capable of giving birth to all the many various possibilities.
Ms. Tippett: And the possibility of freedom.
Dr. Zornberg: Of freedom, of infiniteness, of unpredictability, which such multiple births suggests, and that it’s all done with mirrors, the Midrash says, mischievously, it seems to me. And I have a whole theory about these mirrors. It seems to me that, when one looks in a mirror, one is basically always seeing a somewhat changed version of oneself, a distorted version of oneself. So it means that the mirror represents fantasy. But from the point of view of the Midrash and from the point of view of God, who supports the women’s activities, it takes an act of this kind, a performative act of whimsy and imagination, not looking at things quite straight, in order to open things up.
From this story, I’ve created my own meaning and retelling of the idea to apply to my circumstances. I won’t go into it here, but the mirror is held up to me every day — and in it I’m creating my own midrashic story.
We’ve been asked to redo our staff bios on our About Staff page to make them more, well, human and quirky. Writing your own bio is a very odd experience. You refer to yourself in the third person, possibly like something Napoleon might do. We (and I do mean the royal “we”) hope to get those brushed up over the next few days and up online.
Editor’s note: Our parent organization, American Public Media (APM), is a large and diverse organization. Maria is the manager of software development for the company. She’s a fan of SOF who travels extensively and is planning an introspective journey to myriad spiritual sites around the world. We invited her to contribute to SOF Observed on occasion and reflect as she listens to Krista’s interviews and works with us on upcoming projects.
As SOF staff pore over hundreds of responses to the audience query about Catholic identity and we IT folks try to envision a way to capture that diversity in an online space, I thought about my own relationship with the Catholic Church. How would I answer that query? Has the archdiocese’s cracking down on my small community (The Archdiocese of Minneapolis-St. Paul recently issued letters to area parishes forbidding practices such as communal penance as a sacrament and allowing lay people to preach during Mass. My parish, St. Frances Cabrini Church, was among them.) tainted my relationship with the Church? Why do I still show up?
A few weeks ago I returned from gallivanting around that splendid place of my ancestry — Italy. My Italian companions and I toured through Tuscany and quickly came to understand the three essential components of a Tuscan village: hill, wall, church. Just as my pores exude of garlic after some crostini con pancetta, so too does Italy’s rich art, architecture, and traditions of the Catholic Church.
(photo: Maria Montello)
Despite my friends’ vitriolic commentaries about the Church as an institution, it was in the churches that we spent hours — our necks craned back to witness salvation history played out in frescoes dating from the fifteenth century.
In The Spirituality of Parenting, last week’s SOF guest, Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, spoke of religion as a container for spiritual experience. What better place, for me, than a church — the physical manifestation of this container — to hearken back to that original experience in one of the best ways we know how: through art.
(photo: Maria Montello)
As we stood together marveling at the vaulted ceilings, Corinthian pillars and walls of light, I’d like to think we shared a similar sentiment: “I’m glad to have shown up.”
Over the past week I have been travelling. I must make a choice about my education, and I have been visiting the schools I am considering attending, asking questions of their students, staff, and faculty.
People who study religion are often full of questions. So at The Divinity School of the University of Chicago someone raised the following: “What resources do you have for frustrated Catholic women?” There turned out to be a bevy of enthusiastic resources: a nun, a professor, three students, and an administrator each spoke up, excited at the chance to start a discussion about the role of women in the Catholic Church. One Episcopal male student shouted, “You should convert!” The nun described a woman who had carved a church leadership position for herself without being ordained. The professor was still searching for an answer herself.
At Harvard Divinity School I spoke with John D. Spalding about his SoMA Review, which he founded in part because he couldn’t find a good platform for his slightly tongue-in-cheek articles on religion, politics, and culture. He is now its editor, and contributors include our own Krista Tippett. Also at Harvard, I visited a class taught by Harvey Cox about religious fundamentalism and politics (you can hear him on our program Beyond the Atheism-Religion Divide). I looked for a book by David Ford, director of the Cambridge Inter-Faith Programme, in Harvard’s enormous library system; I found it.
All the travelling and talking about the study of religion and writing and ministry has left me tired and excited and thinking about what it means to be literate in religion. Stephen Prothero wrote a book last year called Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know — and Doesn’t. It documents some scary statistics about what we Americans don’t know about the basic tenets of the world’s major religions, and discusses the peril of maintaining such ignorance.
Inspired to the goal of being religiously literate, I am determined to learn more, to become competent in discussing religions in all their deep complexities. Luckily for me, there are thriving communities of people working on this project together. I’ll be joining one come fall, and I can’t wait.
CNN is broadcasting a presidential candidate forum on faith issues this Sunday, April 13, at 8:00pm ET that includes both Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama (as of this post, John McCain had not accepted the invitation to participate). I hate to admit it, but I think I’m not alone in acknowledging that my attention to this year’s presidential election ebbs and flows as the long months of campaigning continue. But I will tune in this weekend with hopes of hearing a substantive dialogue on ”pressing moral issues that are bridging ideological divides now more than ever, including poverty, global AIDS, climate change and human rights.”
I subscribe to a daily poem from the Academy of American Poets. For me, it’s the pause that refreshes, like the videos that Trent likes to watch. This one bonked me on the head. Click on the header above to read this beautiful poem by Alan Shapiro. (text of poem removed from post in deference to author copyright).
One of the more fabulous aspects of working at SOF is being surrounded by a crazy number of talented people from other other regional and national programs that are part of our parent company, American Public Media (if you’d like, I can try to explain the complexity of the public radio world and distributors some time). I’m overwhelmed by the wide array of topics and material being produced and, unfortunately, never get to hear.
It’s not often that our topic area overlaps so overtly with our next-door neighbors’ material. In this case, King’s religious and moral language wasn’t ignored or minimized for the political, the historical, the newsiness of it all. It wasn’t an anecdote. Sitting in a small crowd of 50 with my colleagues, I was engaged from the first photo, an image of King preaching with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel sitting in the background.
I was overtaken by his recorded words from a sermon given at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta in 1968, shortly before his assassination. I had never heard King like that before.
King’s context was the 60s and civil rights. His legacy today is more than that. His ability is to relate to one’s personal failures and struggles and say, “It’s alright. Keep on trying.” As a husband and a father and a journalist, “I want to be a good man.”
We’re all a little giddy around here today. This morning we learned that we won a 2008 Peabody Award, for our program on Rumi. This is broadcasting’s highest award, and for us it is a sign of arrival. Speaking of Faith launched almost five years ago as a weekly show. In the beginning, many simply didn’t believe that it would be possible to put a program on religion on the air without alienating, inflaming, or proselytizing.
It has been a great adventure pulling that off. And it has been a team effort to say the least. I include our listeners in that - listeners who encouraged and supported us and their public radio stations along the way, saying that, yes, this subject is too important not to risk finding a way to do it differently and get it right. I’ve sensed this past year that we are hitting our stride, finding our voice, in so many ways, and this award feels like a confirmation of that.
We will keep risking, experimenting and, I hope, getting better and better. But, for today, we’re celebrating and not getting much work done! Take a look here at the great company we’re in.
As we prepare to do a show on endangered languages, I’ve been thinking a lot about the intersection of language and spirituality. This came up recently with my three-year-old daughter, who has been asking about death since we buried her fish in our back yard. We were driving across town the other day and she said out of nowhere, “Daddy, when will be my last day?” Meaning, When will I die? After a moment of panic, I decided to talk to her about various views of death from different religious traditions. But I quickly realized that she has no knowledge of the words “spirit” or “soul,” and so it was impossible for her to even grasp that concept. In her mind, she is just a body, nothing more, nothing less. And yet, in due time, the English language will give her a concept of the soul, and with it a whole new conception of her self.
Just learning a language is, in part, acquiring a spiritual worldview. And that would explain why religion and language have so often been intertwined in the history of Western civilization. When Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in the 1450s, the first book he printed was the Bible. A generation later, Martin Luther sparked the Protestant Reformation, and he also produced the first complete translation of the Bible from the original into a contemporary European vernacular. In 1533 Henry VIII broke with Rome and created the Church of England. The result was a whole new English liturgy, with phrases that have since lodged in most English-speaking brains: “Till death us do part,” “Man cometh up, and is cut down, like a flower,” “In the midst of life we are in death,” and “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”
When I think of all the spiritual concepts bound up in my own language, it’s hard to believe that (according to organizations like The Living Tongues Institute) languages around the world are dying at a rate of about one every two weeks. What conceptions of humanity and our place in the world are being lost? I’d be interested to know if any of you have learned any rare languages, and if so what unique ways do those languages have of ordering the world with words?
With Pope Benedict XVI’s upcoming U.S. visit, we’re taking the opportunity to start a broad-ranging conversation about the rich tradition of Roman Catholicism. With all the recent headlines, diverse practitioners of the faith have had little voice in telling their stories.
This is where you come in. If you are or were Catholic, we’d like to hear your perspectives on what anchors and unsettles you in this vast tradition. We’re receiving a tremendous response already, but we’d love to hear more. Feel free to comment on this post, or, even better, share your story and your images with us using our form. Cheers.
Honor Moore has a memoir coming out in May called The Bishop’s Daughter, which was excerpted recently in The New Yorker. It tells the story of her father Paul Moore, a prominent, progressive Episcopal bishop in New York who passed away in 2003, and it reveals what had been a personal and family secret: that this father of nine children and sitting bishop had many homosexual liasons and apparently at least one long-term relationship with a man.
Although Honor Moore’s account is understated, and written with remarkable compassion for her father, this story disturbs on so many different levels I’m not sure I can count them. It raises the spectre of the Episcopal Church’s deep division over the installation of an openly gay man, Gene Robinson, a few years ago. It reminds us of the destructive power of the closet. It begs the question of how Paul Moore managed this falseness and somehow kept his world from absolutely crumbling. And, it surfaces another in a fairly remarkable recent string of revelations about sexual secrets in the lives of powerful and famous men — men, in particular, for whom keeping such secrets had extraordinary and inevitable consequences.
Adding to the pathos, a letter from three of Honor Moore’s siblings in this week’s New Yorker questions the ethics of her posthumously outing her prominent father. Certain to sell books, but what are we really learning (anything?) about spirituality and sexuality, and secrets?
In the next few days, we’ll be rolling out a new program exploring the tradition of humanism. During Krista’s interview with Greg Epstein, Humanist Chaplain of Harvard University, he mentions how he looks to modern literature as a source of understanding.
The next book on my personal reading list is George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. It’s a work of science fiction. Like “atheism” or “spirituality,” the term “science fiction” has been painted into a corner. It has come to mean aliens and lasers and space ships. (I’m looking at you, Star Trek…)
But I think more broadly of science fiction as speculative fiction, a protracted thought experiment. Against the utopian dreams of flying cars, world peace, robot butlers, and unlimited scientific progress was set another batch of science fiction. I think of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, or Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. I think of the German silent film Metropolis, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (which I can’t stand), and the recent Children of Men.
These represent a hell created by us, not the Hell of Scripture. So these prophetic dystopias are relevant to us in a way that parables of hyperdrives and aliens aren’t. And perhaps for many people, the dystopias may be more relevant than parables of miracles and angels.
We look at an Orwell or a Bradbury or a Huxley and ask, “If we’re heading in directions explored by these dark modern prophets, do we know how to turn around?” But is looking into a funhouse mirror enough? Is it even a start?
While conducting some research for our upcoming show on humanism, I was reminded of an amazing truth about ancient texts. Greek philosophy doesn’t come to us whole; it is an inheritance in pieces. The passage of time always edits, and of Epicurus, the ancient Greek philosopher who died in 270 BCE, barely any original writing remains.
The scarcity of original texts can be difficult in some ways. We must learn what we can about him, Epicurus, from the philosophers who wrote about him after his death, the Epicureans. The most important of these writings, and the one source for texts by Epicurus himself, is a biography by Diogenes, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, from 230 CE. It is not always easy to do research on a figure whose personal writings are so few.
But I have been grateful in the past couple of days that we have a small selection of texts directly from Epicurus. Ancient Greek philosophy often feels to me vast, far away, and incomprehensible. On the contrary, you can read Epicurus’ three letters, quoted in Diogenes’ biography, in one short sitting. The letter to Menoeceus is a summary of Epicurean ethics. It opens with these lines, “it is never too soon nor too late to devote oneself to the well-being of the soul.”
I’d say the same about the ancients. It is never too soon nor too late to find some ancient Greek philosophy online and read a little.
Last month, leading Danish newspapers reprinted the caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad that sparked protest and rioting two years ago. They did so as a demonstration of freedom of speech, they explained, after a plot was discovered (and stopped) to kill the man who drew the cartoon.
The reprints were cited as provocation in new recordings that surfaced, purportedly by Osama bin Laden, threatening reprisals in Europe. For a better understanding of the meaning of the original controversy from an American Muslim perspective, I recommend listening to our program with Vincent Cornell as a resource.
Catching up on my New Yorker reading, I ran across this article from the March 3 issue about the way the human brain is hardwired for math. It reminded me of my own peculiar sense of numbers as a kid, especially the numbers 1-10. At some point, around 1st grade, my brain gave those numbers distinct personalities, genders, and even relationships with each other. The number 6 for instance was an awkward, nerdy boy, and the number 9 was a sophisticated young woman. 6 looked up to 9 like a cool older sister, but she couldn’t stand him, and whenever they were multiplied or added, 9 couldn’t wait for the computation to end. She much preferred the company of 4 and 8, both of them cool, confident boys, though 8 was more disaffected than eager, cheerful 4 (I could go on and on like this).
What’s fascinating to me is the author Jim Holt’s statement that, according to cognitive science, “We have a sense of number that is independent of language, memory, and reasoning in general.” To me, numbers feel like a human invention, just as alphabets and words are human inventions, but it’s apparently more like numbers are a part of nature. And according to this research, our brains grasp the rudimentaries of math as intuitively as we grasp hunger, thirst, and love.
It made me think of Janna Levin’s response on our show "Mathematics, Purpose, and Truth" when Krista asked her, “Does the fact that one plus one equals two have anything to do with God?” Levin said, “If I were to ever lean towards spiritual thinking or religious thinking, it would be in that way. It would be, why is it that there is this abstract mathematics that guides the universe? The universe is remarkable because we can understand it. That’s what’s remarkable.”
About the images: top photo by jbushnell/Flickr and second photo by Genista/Flickr
OK. I had begun this post with a long-winded preface about SOF’s coverage of Islam, how much I’ve learned, the good I hope it’s doing, and all the rest. Nix that.
The fact of the matter is I long for a complementary, not-so-academic vision of Muslims — people I can relate to as a Westerner rather than continually being aware of that sense of otherness. For me, there’s no better path to this understanding than through pop culture. When it comes to the Middle East, in particular, Saudi Arabia, Rajaa Alsanea’s book Girls of Riyadh does exactly that. Her writing is not heavy-handed or overly didactic, but lithe with impact through colloquial language and subject matter that all blossoming young adults can identify with.
Although it’s fiction, one learns more about the lived reality of youth culture and the integration of Islam among the upper crust of Saudi socialites than the many news reports and documentaries that are “good for you.” In some ways, I found myself identifying with the plights of these four (five counting the narrator?) young women, their longing for independence and community of family, love, and career.
The cultural differences are vast and deep, but tellingly so are the similarities. I only wish I could read Arabic so that I could savor all the subtleties of language and slang used in Alsanea’s original text Banat al-Riyadh. The book’s a clever, fun, page-turning expedition. You’ll buzz through it in no time.
OK, I apologize. This satirical headline from The Onion touched my funny bone on so many levels that I had to share. I quickly remembered the horror of an 8th-grade boy who found his brand new, jet black concert t-shirt from Sammy Hagar’s 3-Lock Box tour a desert army brown after my mother bleached it. And, with the Lenten season in full swing and me washing every article of clothing and blankets in my house after a week-long flu, I immediately wondered if I had gotten sloppy with my own stuff.
If the headline wasn’t enough, they topped it with the secondary slug, “Error Not Caught Until After Holy Spin Cycle” and a great doctored image captioned “Cardinal Giovanni Lajolo assures reporters at a Vatican press conference that it is far too late for club soda.”
There’s a pretty interesting article in the New York Times Magazine this weekend. Noah Feldman looks at the historical and present-day functioning of Shariah, that body of Islamic law that is so freighted today with apocalyptic connotations in the West. In his article, he looks at the balancing of powers in previous Islamic empires, and how the constitutional developments in current Muslim-majority countries look to infuse Islamic principles into state law.
Tony Soprano, Ojibwe Poetry, and "Technicians of the Sacred"
Kate Moos, Managing Producer
We do talk about big ideas at work. But we also talk about what TV shows we are catching up on. I happen to be watching the final season of The Sopranos on DVD. I will not include a spoiler here. But I will mention a minor but significant plot element that occurrs in one episode — an Ojibwe poem I first read in the break-through anthology Technicians of the Sacred years ago. Here it is, in one of its many variant forms:
Sometimes I I go about pitying Myself While I am carried by the wind Across the sky.
Seeing this poem turn up on TV was like bumping into an old friend in an unexpected place after many years. Watching the haunting impact it had on Tony Sorprano reminded me of my first reading of it, which might be something like: “Get over yourself. Life is changeable and various.”
But I actually learned something from Tony Soprano’s take on it, which I would characterize as slightly different — and oddly even more positive — than mine: “Stop feeling sorry for yourself. Life is a long, wonderful journey.”
Technicians of the Sacred changed how many writers thought about literature and poetry in the 1970s. It’s gratifying to see that it is still being carried by the wind across the sky.
With fewer travel commitments in the coming months, we’ll have more time to set up interviews and produce programs. So, we’re currently pursuing a number of interesting voices, recording interviews, and producing shows with interviews we’ve recently completed. Which all means that in the coming weeks and months, you may be hearing shows on:
The Gospel, as Done by Mick and Keith Mitch Hanley, Senior Producer
Yesterday morning I was making breakfast, cleaning the kitchen, and listening to the Rolling Stones’ Beggar’s Banquet, one of my favorite of their albums (includes “Sympathy for the Devil,” “Street Fightin Man,” etc.). This record has a great rendition of the story of the prodigal son, a biblical parable with a message that I have never appreciated, until yesterday.
I have always felt that there should be consequences for the younger son having left, blown all his money, and then comes back to be received into the fold of his family. And what about the elder son who remained there, steadfast and dedicated, his inheritance intact? What message does he receive, other than, ‘You might as well go off and blow your wad, too, because it doesn’t really matter’? Well, OK, so this really isn’t the message.
And yesterday it seems as though I had a eureka moment, long after most of you, I suppose. So, life isn’t fair, right? We all know that; we’ve seen it every day in the news where there are injustices and sometimes no consequences. But for a reader of the Bible, does one wish that God’s love be merely fair with consequences for bad decisions? I would think not. My guess is that we want it both ways: we want justice here on earth and for God’s love to be unconditional. What is wrong with that? But the story is not trying to reflect how it is here on earth, and only how God’s love is — unreasonable, irrational, and that is the beauty of it.
So what are the benefits of remaining on the farm? Or, in another way, what are the benefits of leading a life within the fold of God’s love? I would guess there are many different answers to this question, depending on whom you ask.
I also have to think, ‘What if the younger son went off, blew all his money, and became Buddhist?’ Would he still be “dead” to his father?
Before I arrived here in snowy St. Paul, not very long ago, I was living in Venice, Italy, sharing a two-bedroom apartment in the old Castello neighborhood with a scientist of sperm whale sound and a landscape architect. I worked days at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Palazzo Venier Dei Leoni on the Grand Canal, cleaning the base below the Calder mobile, washing the windows, selling tickets, and guarding rooms in which hung paintings by Picasso, Braque, Mondrian, Severini, Miro, and Pollock. Doing a boring job in a beautiful place is one of the greatest opportunities for meditation I have had, and I spent many hours comparing Mondrian’s The Sea to the ripples on the canal outside the wrought iron grated windows.
I became fascinated with a theme I saw in Mondrian’s landscapes, Brancusi’s birds, and Giacometti’s human figures. Each of these artists purposefully spent years of his working life paring down, making an attempt to paint or sculpt the essence of a natural image, ever simplifying the visual language he used. They all believed, in some instances with a spiritual fervor, that it was possible to find and express essence.
When I was in high school, my best writing teacher came to me through Biology. She taught me to describe the beginnings of life in the “primordial soup” briefly, on one side of a piece of paper. This was a painful process of excision, of finding the fatty words lacking in meaning and cutting them until the essay became its leanest self. Poets use this practice too; they choose the briefest of all possible ways to spin the phrase. Annie Dillard’s latest novel, The Maytrees, was originally a 1400-page manuscript, now just over 200.
Wise cutting makes for good writing and sculpture, yes, but since being in Venice I have come to see cutting away excess as a meaning-making practice too. Isn’t this how ascetics craft their very lives? Wouldn’t all our lives be more sustainable if we could, like the absract artists, pare away the metaphorical fat?
Daniel Mendlesohn in Sunday’s NY Times elegantly articulates what’s at stake in the most recent revelations about high-buzz memoirs that turned out to be complete fictions. Both memoirs told stories of suffering and oppression that was were not a part of the authors’ experiences. Of particular interest to me was Mendelsohn’s dissection of our excessive interest in “identification.” He writes:
While these statements [on the part of the authors explaining their intentions] want to suggest a somehow admirable desire to “empathize” with the oppressed subjects, this sentimental gesture both mirrors and exploits a widespread, quite pernicious cultural confusion about identity and suffering. We have so often been invited, in the past decade and a half, to “feel the pain” of others that we rarely pause to wonder whether this is, in fact, a good thing.
Empathy and pity are strong and necessary emotions that deepen our sense of connection to others; but they depend on a kind of metaphorical imagination of what others are going through. The facile assumption that we can literally “feel others’ pain” can be dangerous to our sense of who we are — and, more alarmingly, who the others are, too. “We all have AIDS,” a recent public-awareness campaign declared. Well, no, actually we don’t: and to pretend that we do, even rhetorically, debases the anguish of those who are stricken.
I’ve just returned from one of my favorite weekend routines: an early morning walk through the park with my happy, bounding yellow lab, Oban. I live near one of the busiest parks in the state of Minnesota, but at 6:30 on a winter Sunday morning, it’s just the two of us, and, if we’re lucky, a few early-rising creatures. Today a chorus of woodpeckers guided us through a timbered path on the public golf course – the same path where last fall a large grey owl monitored our steps from atop a broken tree limb.
I treasure these walks with Oban for the opposing sense of solitude and companionship I feel with him. In simple ways, he reminds me about commitment and the reciprocity of relationship. I’ll walk along at a steady pace; if he runs ahead too far, he’ll turn around and wait for me to catch up, or if he lags behind, I’ll look back and find him running at me full speed to stay close.
We’ve talked about doing a program on the human/animal bond and its spiritual resonance (a topic of greater interest to the pet owners on our staff). Our recent re-broadcast of our program with Katy Payne reminded me of this. Since whales and elephants are not our domestic companions, I hope we can address similar themes of intuitive connection and belonging through the animals closer to our daily lives. I have yet to find a guest who would be a good fit for this topic. Any suggestions?
The project “…was conceived as a response to global religious tensions which intensified in the wake of 9/11. Professional and amateur photographers from around the world volunteered to explore New York City’s richly variegated spiritual life and discover how diversity in belief and practice enriches our own individual experience… Our project aims to remind us all how fortunate we are to live in a city where myriad beliefs coexist in peace and tolerance; we can connect to others and share comfort, sadness, hope and joy as we walk our unique spiritual paths.”
Here’s a few examples of photos from the Brooklyn exhibit:
Ingrid Mattson, head of the Islamic Society of North America, is someone we’ve dubbed a “new voice for Islam.” A new book, meanwhile, is the result of six years of interviews with thousands of Muslims worldwide. There are great interviews on Altmuslim and ReligionWriter, respectively, with the two authors of this new book called Who Speaks For Islam: What A Billion Muslims Really Think. Some important ideas, especially as we are in an election cycle, though we have become used to hearing and tuning out these weighty analyses. I’m not sure we know what to do with them; one hopes our politicians do, though.
Says co-author of the book, Dalia Mogahed:
There are essentially three prisms or filters through which everything the U.S. does or says is viewed by Muslims worldwide. The first filter is the perception of cultural disrespect, that the United States does not respect Islam and Muslims. That I could talk about for a long time. The second filter is the perception of political and economic domination. It’s the perception that the U.S. believes, “Democracy is great, but not for Muslims,” and props up dictators so that the wealth of the nation can be exploited. The third filter is that of acute conflicts — Palestine, of course, and now Iraq and Afghanistan.
These three filters are not independent of each other. They overlap, and one reinforces the other and is in turn reinforced by the other. The filters of cultural disrespect and acute conflicts, for example, overlapped in Abu Ghraib. So changing that won’t be easy; it will require both diplomacy and engaging people on policy.
I enjoyed Nicholson Baker’s essay about Wikipedia (a warning: in his discussion of Wikipedia vandalism, he quotes some profane language) in The New York Review of Books. He notes the astonishing fact that 1500 articles are deleted from Wikipedia every day, and there are warring factions of deletionists and inclusionists battling each other all the time.
Baker has often written about his worry that overlooked but wonderful things are disappearing from the world. He once said in an interview, “It makes me unhappy when certain things change or things are superceded… my nine year old daughter’s personality… Card catalogues; things too.
Jiffy Pop right now feels imperiled. I always think, thank God it’s still hanging there, even though people don’t really buy it for the popcorn anymore — maybe they never did — but now it’s a nostalgia item.” (If I knew more about Wikipedia, I would edit the page on Jiffy Pop to include Baker’s anxiety about its continued survival.)
It made me think of St. Irenaeus, whom John O’Donohue quoted on our most recent show. A second century bishop of the Christian church, he helped delete a lot of early Scripture from the canon, including all the writing of the Gnostics. But when it came to choosing which of the several testaments to the life of Jesus was the right one, he gave up his deletionist tendencies and became an inclusionist. It was due in part to him that the New Testament included four gospels instead of just one.
The response to my previous entry reminded me that we have been in pursuit of our next program on the topic of spirituality and recovery from addiction for awhile, and I don’t feel I personally am making great headway identifying the right voice(s).
There are a million stories to tell, of course, which sometimes actually makes it harder to find the one right story to hone in on. What are the stories that matter to you? Who would you interview? Who do you read on the subject? We’re truly curious to hear your thoughts.
I can’t think of my mother without thinking of Mahalia Jackson’s recording of "Move On Up a Little Higher", with its promise of seeing one’s loving mother in heaven, and its crazy-ecstatic refrain, It’ll be always howdy howdy and never goodbye, that makes me just fall apart. The heart-stopping idea is that loss is erased, that it’s just gone from us, in heaven.
My mother died in 1984, when she was 69 years old, of emphysema, in a race with heart disease. Her health was poor; in addition to lifelong asthma from hay fever and allergies, she had crippling osteoporosis and serious circulatory problems. She was also a life-long smoker, and — bless her — an alcoholic who stayed sober for over 25 years before her death. Like the other lucky ones of her generation, having squared themselves with their Higher Power and found sanity and sobriety in A.A., she smoked like a true addict, as Bill Wilson himself is said to have smoked, as if her life depended on it.
I’m my mother’s difficult youngest daughter, and one of her children who got the heritable propensity for addiction. Addiction: the blessing-curse that instructs me each day in who and what I am, as a guest on SOF once said. All by way of saying that having spent much of my childhood complaining loudly about my parents’ cigarette smoke and begging them to roll down the windows of our crowded Chevy station wagon to let some air in, I became a smoker in my late teens, and stayed a serious smoker long past the time most people had quit.
A year ago today, just as Krista Tippett and I were about to embark on the tour for publication of the hard cover Speaking of Faith, I too quit, using a smoking cessation medication called Chantix. Unbelievably, it worked.
It seems obvious to say I had no idea what I had been doing to myself with my cigarette habit, but it is sadly — even pathetically — true. And I don’t mean just the awareness that I was contributing to the threat of early death or ill health. I mean that once we lose our freedom, it’s almost impossible to know what it is to be free. Living life on a short leash didn’t seem odd, or unusual. It seemed like life. That’s one of the reasons so many of us, who in one form or another have had to come to terms with addiction, are actually grateful for it. As I am, today, marking 365 consecutive days of freedom, in memory of Marva Maxwell, my mom.
Just a few notes regarding the songs on this week’s SOF Playlist. Thanks, to Padraig for his suggestion of Lasairfhiona Ní Chonaola’s music, which I was able to find and place in this week’s program. Also, many thanks to Gerard O’Shea who wrote about attending a John O’Donohue memorial in his blog. In which he mentions that at the end of the service a gentleman named Jack Carley got up and sang “The Vale of Fermoyle,” in the sean-nos style (see blog entry below for more info and a beautiful example). Fermoyle is the birthplace of John O’Donohue and this song was one of his favorites.
Anyway, Gerard ordered a copy of that CD on Tuesday and was kind enough to e-mail a version of that song to me the very same day. Hats off to Cois na h-Abhna, Dooras in County Clare for providing the CD, There’s a Spot in Old Ireland. Though I was not able to use that song in the program, I’ve included it as a bonus track on the show’s playlist.
I also just wanted to provide an excerpt of the lyrics to Iarla O’lionaird’s version of Taimse im’ chodladh, which I have found translated as “I Sleep” “I am Sleep” “I am Asleep”, but I think you get the gist. Thanks to Bill Jones’ website, which offers a translation of the Gaelic. Here is an excerpt:
I am sleeping, do not wake me I hear you calling Come back again, I’ll show you how I am sleeping, do not wake me The day is dawning Come back again, don’t wake me now Just look high and low, and search round the town For the wildflower where we met the first time If you pull the petals all the spell may be broken Come back again, don’t wake me now
This song ends the program and I felt that this was a nice image of someone sleeping to round out the homage to John O’Donohue, not that I knew what the words meant when I was placing the song! Sometimes you get lucky. Anyway, that’s about it. I hope you enjoy the music.
One of the exciting aspects of my job as a producer is the opportunities our web site opens up for multimedia content. As soon as we started producing this week’s program, I wanted our audience to be able to see the Irish landscape John O’Donohue described in his conversation with Krista. I desperately wanted to see it. I’m of Irish ancestry (75%!, I’d proudly tell people on St. Patrick’s Day as a kid, dressed in my Kelly green shirt with a “Kiss me, I’m Irish” button), and someday I hope to make it to that emerald isle.
When I asked John O’Donohue’s business manager, Linda, if she had any photos of John in Ireland, she graciously offered to put out a request to friends and family. Within days I’d received over a dozen photos of both the Connemara region where John most recently lived, and some of Fanore, a town in County Clare where John attended elementary school, and where he is now buried. Will O’Leary, a veteran Washington Post staff photographer and close friend of John’s, shared some of his photos. His wife, NPR reporter Jacki Lyden, was also a close friend of John’s (she recently offered a remembrance of him on NPR’s All Things Considered). Another longtime friend and professional photographer, Nutan, shared photos he took of John in 2005.
In producing the audio slideshow, I was struck with how well the photos illustrated O’Donohue’s language in his poem “Beannacht” — a word I’ve heard translated as both “blessing” and “passage.” It’s about finding comfort in loss, and I consciously tried to match the photos to the poem’s tone, mood, and pace. I learned that John wrote this poem for his mother, Josie, at the time of his father’s death. According to Linda, his father “…was a farmer and a gifted builder of dry stone walls — a dying art still much revered — from whom, John’s brother Pat said at his funeral, John learned the art of fitting words delicately and fittingly together.”
Colleen crafted a lovely audio slideshow (keep your eye out for her post) of O’Donohue’s recitation of “Beannacht” threaded with phototgraphs of scenic Celtic landscapes taken by several of his dear friends. And, since many of O’Donohue’s recitations won’t make it into the final, produced program, I wanted to offer them up here for download — or, if you prefer a more expedient and organized approach, through our podcast.
All of them are mp3s you can download. Just right-click your mouse and select save as:
As the newest member of the Speaking of Faith staff (I’ve been working for the show for almost 3 months now), I’m still navigating the somewhat awkward transition from fan to employee. This week’s upcoming show really brought that into relief.
Before I got this job, Whale Songs and Elephant Loves was perhaps my favorite show in the history of SOF. I remember listening to it more than a year ago, in my car, and there was that amazing moment when Krista points out how hard it is for people to really understand that their lives affect the survival of animals half-way around the globe. And Katy Payne gets very quiet and almost whispers, “Here we are on the radio; our task is to make this real. This planet, this planet is the only place where we have this kind of life. Let’s not blow it.” That just knocked me out. It seems so obvious, but when she states it that way I can’t help but marvel at the idea. This planet is the only place where we have this kind of life.
Flash forward about a year, and it’s now my job to get in contact with Katy Payne to find out if we need to update anything for the rebroadcast of the show. I dial her number, listen to it ring, and then suddenly that distinctive voice, somehow fragile and strong at the same time, is coming through my telephone. I tell her who I am and why I’m calling and she answers my questions, and I’m aware the whole time of how strangely small the world is, that a year ago I was marveling at the words over the radio of this woman who’s spent her life listening to whales and elephants, and now I’ve called her up and she’s listening to me. I’m almost surprised to find out she’s real. I thank her and say goodbye and she says, “Well, thank you. I loved that show. I think I’ll celebrate by listening to it again myself.”
Most of the interviews Krista does with her guests are remote interviews, meaning that we’re here in our studios while our guest is in another studio in another city. We connect through the magic of technology using a broadcast-quality line. From Studio P at American Public Media, Krista interviews Steve Waldman, founder of Beliefnet, on some of the themes in his new book, Founding Faith. We’re hoping to get this show turned around pretty quick because of a trip to San Diego some of the gang is embarking upon next week. More to come about that later.
Here’s Krista cozying up to the microphone. She usually listens to her guest with her eyes closed—no distractions.
American Public Media engineer extraordinaire Josh checks the mixing board as Krista and Steve Waldman chit-chat before the interview.
Rob (left) is about to give away the ending of Deadwood, Season 1, to Mitch, who says, “La la la, I can’t hear you!” Colleen is clearly sad about coming to the end of The Sopranos. The back of Josh’s head is lustrous! All this as we wait for technicians on the other end of the line to finish their setup.
One of our recent shows featured Ed Husain, an ex-member of radical student Islamist groups in Britain in the 1990s. The natural question for American listeners is, “What about the college scene here, now?” Neil MacFarquhar does a piece on this very question in the New York Times. “Experts in American Islam believe college campuses have become too diverse and are under too much scrutiny for the groups to foster radicals.”
“Whenever I was on the plane heading to Washington, my wife was kind of looking through… actually some verses in her Bible — and she handed her Bible to me. It was Romans 13, verses one through five, and verses four and five were the verses that she told me to read. And, I mean I’m not gonna sit here and quote Scripture or whatever, but if you’re interested in that, those are the verses I read. And I needed to tell the truth.”—
— Andy Pettitte, All-Star pitcher for the New York Yankees, at a press conference several days after he gave a deposition to a congressional committee testifying that he used HGH in 2002 and 2004.
The verses read:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience.
I’ve been really drawn to this idea, brought to our attention by a listener, of the Ultimate Black Belt Test. It’s a very intense 13-month martial-arts training course. This course involves many things, some more traditionally “martial” than others: 1,000 rounds of sparring, 10,000 push-ups, and other grueling physical exercises.
Having taken karate for four years during high school, I still remember doing push-ups on my knuckles until they turned blue and purple. And I don’t mean “really red.” I mean like, “I need medical attention.” For days, I would look at my knuckles in horror at what they had become. I remember getting kicked in the stomach on several occasions, being completely drenched in sweat after rounds and rounds of drills, and wondering during the rest of the week whether I had the stamina or the will to go beyond myself to get that black belt.
As a moody 17-year-old, I decided that I’d had enough. I got to the second level of brown belt, but the black belt (the next belt) would have required another 3-5 years of serious dedication, and I simply didn’t care badly enough.
I was studying a form of martial arts that had been removed from its cultural context, and focused on the techniques of punching, kicking, standing, and other outward physical forms. I suppose I gave up because I didn’t have a core motivation inside me to push me through the training I would need to get to black. I didn’t know why I should care. I was never a very confrontational person, and sparring terrified me.
What fascinates me about the UBBT is how it fills out that inner dimension I never found in karate, which I had taken up purely as exercise. In UBBT, aside from the pain, you have to do things like practice 1,000 acts of kindness, live for a day as a blind person, clean up the environment, and profile your ten living heroes. Some of the UBBT trainees this year are heading to Greensboro, Alabama, to participate in Rural Studio home-building projects. (We had done a show on the Rural Studio a few months ago.) And, yes, that area is known as the Black Belt.
When we think of martial arts, or even military training, we rarely associate it with ethical living. Sun Tzu’s The Art of War regularly finds its place in business training. We’re so conditioned to be aggressive, to fend for ourselves, to fight to get ahead. Maybe that’s the dark side of individualism.
In any case, many martial arts traditions have immense philosophical depth to them that have accrued over centuries. It’s fascinating to me to see a program that encourages the development of the inner self and treats it as seriously as the physical regimen. I don’t plan on delving back into martial arts, but I’m drawn to the story of the UBBT, and it’s something I hope we can explore in some form on Speaking of Faith. We’ve talked in the past about having web features, and this might be a topic for such a feature.