Saturday, February 27, 2010

A pilgrimage into prayer: Two paths

Pilgrims -- people walking -- attend to their feet. They have to: feet determine speed, progress, and levels of pain. While hiking the Camino, we posted endlessly about our feet. I shopped for moleskin the way I shop for lipstick back home.

Pray-ers -- people praying -- attend to their hands. Indeed, praying means doing something with hands other than texting, typing, and gripping a steering wheel. Pray-ers either fold their hands together, as if trying to keep them away from all manual distractions, or they keep them open and ready to receive. Martin Luther wished he could pray "like my dog at table waits for a bone."

The pilgrimage of the moment leads through the mysterious terrain of prayer. Since Lisa and I are teaching course on comparative spiritualities, Lutheran and Ignatian, we're learning lots from two spiritual masters who not only wrote about prayer -- but did it.

Luther demolished an edifice of intercessors, saints and priests upon whom people could call to act as intermediaries between them and the divine mystery. The believer stood naked before the mystery, clothed only in the righteousness of Christ. I bet those hands, folded or not, were shaking. I bet those pilgrim feet were quaking.

Someone as ordinary as Luther's barber, Peter Beskendorf, noticed the nakedness -- and asked the obvious: "OK: you've taken away everyone I had praying for me. How then shall I pray?" And Luther's response comes in the form of a letter, "A Simple Way to Pray" (Luther's Works, Vol. 43). Presenting some scriptural texts, the Lord's Prayer and the Decalogue, along with the Apostle's Creed, he first invites Peter to let the text instruct him -- surprise him with a new insight, the "Aha!" moment; then, let the text prompt his gratitude -- the "thanks!" moment; then, allow the text convict him -- the moment of penance; and finally, let the text remind him of those in need of his prayer -- the moment of intercession. It is a "simple" way to pray: Luther essentially uses scripture as the foundation for prayer.

Imagine the hands above filled with words.

Ignatius' analogous form of prayer uses, not biblical words, but experience. He invites believers to look about over the day, thanking God for the day's blessings (the moment of thanks); asking for grace to see and overcome shortcomings (the moment of penance); reviewing the day for moments of desolation and consolation (the "Aha!" moment, now yielding psychological, not didactic, insight); seeking God's forgiveness (another moment of penance); and finally, planning for the future. Dennis Hamm SJ describes this form of prayer, known as the Examen (Exercises 24-43), as "rummaging for God" by moving "backwards through your day."

Imagine the hands above filled with experience, the lived experience of the one praying.

The two ways are striking in their similarity, but very different in the "stuff" of prayer. Both attend to the elements of instruction and gratitude, penance and forgiveness. But scripture and experience are very different sources to engage.

Finally, we need both: a way of reading scripture for life and a way of reading life through the eyes of scripture.

Mostly, though, I yearn to pray with the concentration of Luther's dog!

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Pilgrimage to -- Pittsburgh?

Pittsburgh in not on any list of pilgrimage sites; it claims no relics or special miracles. In mid-February, it's simply another city whose rivers no longer bring busy traffic. The steel mills are silent, the streets tired and empty. And it's full of grimy, slushy snow.

Yet, pilgrimage brings us here, for the Lilly Endowment, source of our pilgrimage grant, has gathered its scattered scholars and fellows here to discuss their projects for a kind of mid-course correction.

There are other elements of pilgrimage in Pittsburgh. On the Camino we would arrange to meet up with Eric the Lame or Sophie the Jazz Dancer at the day's end for a drink, so here we gather at a meeting that has been on my calendar for months. On the Camino we'd enthusiastically share strategies for the best way to treat blisters. So here we share cross-disciplinary counsel for our work, tending each others projects the way we'd tend fellow pilgrims' feet.

In the spirit of pilgrimage, we're here simply to receive.

And for busy, productive, Type A scholars, that's no small order.

In the seasons of a scholar, I would put us all at mid-career. We're past the scramble for tenure, with several books and a score of "important" articles under out belts. Or, better, in our backpacks. We've raised kids (at least some of us!), paid mortgages, served as administrators, contributed to our various guilds, and shaped the discipline.

In short, we're settled. And now it's time to ask the question: what have we settled for? It's the question of vocation, as Frederick Buechner put it, where do you own deepest longings meet the world's greatest needs?

I see a lot of the world in this room. We bring Spain, El Salvador, Mexico, along with questions of solidarity, immigration, globalization. Others bring Madagascar and its practices of healing, the Congo and its carnage, the Sudan and tribal warfare. And more than even before at a scholarly conference, I notice that people are working not simply across the centuries, but around the world.

Where will we meet that world's need? I'm eager to learn.

Yes, Lisa is here. And yes, we've been walking. We walked the bridges over Pittsburgh's three rivers, the Allegheny, the Ohio, and the Monongahela.

Thursday, February 18, 2010


In common parlance, to be "available" means generally one thing--are you free to enter into a relationship? "How about her? Is she available?" I like this term better than "single," because singleness doesn't always imply availability. One can be single but not available emotionally (and Oh God have I met some of those!) or not available for other reasons--a consuming job, disinterest in deep relationship, recent loss.

In her comment, Marty draws an astute (as usual!) distinction between affective or emotional avaliability and literal, missional availability. I'd said in the post that the deeper dynamism of availability means availability to love, to be called deeper into connection.

In Ignatian spirituality, we have one ultimate call. We are to be available for whatever--and whomever--God calls us to, with Jesus our companion, for the kingdom. It's as simple as that. But the call can take so many forms, even in one person's life. In my first post on availaiblity in Ignatian tradition, I talked about literal vs. affective availability, and argued that we are called to affective availability. d. Affective availability is what Jesuit general Pedro Arrupe was getting at when he advised people to “Fall in love...” to give themselves wholly over. Our literal availability, however that plays itself out, is always in the service of that deeper freedom to love. Here a similar distinction, between availability to projects and availability to people.
--By projects I mean anything from personal initiatives like working to keep music education in schools, to jobs, to careers to professions to religious life. Availability that cannot encompass commitment to long-term projects is no longer Ignatian and risks that we become flighty and unreliable, unable to follow through on our commitments. HOWEVER, there is no project that can claim our ultimate loyalty. Jesus and the Kingdom have our final loyalty. Availability does mean that we are free to discern whether the time for our involvement in a particular endeavor is over, whether because it can sustain itself without our help or because its time is past or, most significantly, because continuing in this project is keeping us from being available for more urgent needs, including needs of other people and needs of our own. We are not free to commit ourselves to self-destruction.

In the Principle and Foundation of the Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius lays it out: "For this it is necessary to make ourselves indifferent to all created things in all that is allowed to the choice of our free will and is not prohibited to it; so that, on our part, we want not health rather than sickness, riches rather than poverty, honor rather than dishonor, long rather than short life, and so in all the rest; desiring and choosing only what is most conducive for us to the end for which we are created." Why are we created? "To praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save our souls."

Created things. Not people. His examples are goods, not people. Availability for people in Ignatian spirituality, I think, follows a slightly different rule. Availability in its Ignatian sense does not mean non-attachment to people because the fundamental call of Christ to those who would follow him is to love God and others as well as we can. Indeed, availability in its Ignatian sense means that we strive to be available to love and serve. To apply the Principle and Foundation to people would make this a profoundly narcissistic spirituality. Plus, serving God implies prioritizing what God prioritizes, and God seems to care about people rather a lot--viz. Jesus. For Christians, it is absurd to think of love of God apart from love of neighbor, and some neighbors are closer than others, and have different kinds of claims on us.
HOWEVER, one of the challenging things about Ignatian spirituality is that we do bring the same dynamism of discernment and response—apostolic availability—to relationships as well. Established relationships that are not easy to leave behind command a greater fidelity than shallower relationships. In general, I’d suggest that the more essential a relationship is, the more important it is to ask first: “How might God be asking/inviting me to look at how this relationship can be fixed, perhaps by showing me acutely what’s not good now?” Even here, though, radical availability means that we are discerning through the lens of who and how God calls us to be, not merely making a prudential decision. And at some point in most close relationships, the question to be pondered becomes less, as the song says, “should I stay or should I go?” than “Why am I staying today?” A richer reflection drawing on previous consolation when desolate, and aware of the dangers of making important decisions in desolation—or consolation!
Ignatian availability isn’t the same as non-attachment. In fact, sometimes availability implies passionate attachment to projects or people, but only and insofar as they are part of a well-discerned response to the initiative of God and our perception of the needs of the others in our lives. Good love--great love--is a call from God to be available. "Is she available?" I hope so.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Tourism and Pilgrimage

The current Christian Century has a nifty interview with travel maven Rick Steves in support of his new book, Travel as a Political Act. Along the way, he’s asked about the distinction between tourism and pilgrimage. He describes travel as like pilgrimage:

“The system encourages you to be a tourist, because the system is an economic engine. You are led to believe that you need to be a consumer, that you need a fancy hotel, that you need to take a fancy tour. You will go home having done some predictable things—just what the advertising told you would happen.


You could go to Africa and take in all the finest golf courses and come home having learned nothing. Or you could go to Africa and drink tea with local people, help them out in different ways and gain empathy for them. You’d come home changed. That’s being a traveler. Travelers and pilgrims are people who are connecting, learning, challenging themselves and not doing what’s predictable.”

In the interview he also mentions Americans' ethnocentrism as a besetting sin. We downplay Jesus' option for the poor, and tend not to ask questions about structures of oppression. He suggests that this might be why Mother Teresa was beloved while Oscar Romero was assassinated--he asked the "why?", and she did not. (Or, in the words of the prophet Jackson Browne, "But if anyone should interfere with the business of why there ARE poor, they get the same as the rebel Jesus..") In sum, RIck Steves the Lutheran seems wholly formed in Catholic Social Teaching. Go Rick!

I think we've been pilgrims both in Spain and in Mexico City in Steves' sense. In Spain I suppose we were pretty predictable pilgrims, as pilgrims go. In Mexico City, though, we were engaged more in the kinds of questions that Steves points to--questions of structural sin, especially in the ways the US has affected Mexico. In Spain, a first-world nation like our own, there seemed less opportunity to ask quesitons of whole-nation issues than there was in Mexico. But of course, there are poor folk in Sppain too. Did we meet them on the camino? Not really--on the camino we were comfortable people temporarily uncomfortable by choice. There was solidarity, but not the same sort...

Friday, February 12, 2010

Writing into the silence: Journaling prayer

Here's the question: if something is important enough to assign to our students, shouldn't we -- their professors -- do it as well?

The question has come up in two contexts of late, so it seems like something I ought to attend to.

The first context is the whole question of immersion: we require it of our students, because multiculturalism is a value that directs teaching and learning at our institutions. Doesn't it follow that professors should go too? And not as teachers, but as learners, experiencing what their students do -- along with them? My answer is a hearty "Yes!" I'm working with a subcommittee of my faculty to make it both possible and required of all faculty.

Doubtless related, the second context for the question is the class Lisa and I teach this semester on comparative spiritualities, Lutheran and Ignatian. Yes, it's one of the "deliverables" of our grant on pilgrimage, now taking on a life of its own. We also wanted the course to be a course not just ABOUT spiritual experience, but IN it.

So we asked students to keep a prayer journal, chronicling their life of prayer. We haven't given much direction to this -- Ignatius and Luther are far more directive! In short, we don't care how they pray, we just care that they pray.

That second context prompted the question we asked ourselves last week: "Gosh, shouldn't we be doing this as well?" And of course, the answer is another hearty "Yes!"

So I started mine. With pencil and glue stick, I started. I actually know a few things about how I need to journal. Journals, unlike books, get to be three-dimensional. They must have pockets and images, things that fold out and things that get tucked in. Because journals help me pay attention, anything that catches my attention gets imported.

But I've only kept journals for travel, for pilgrimage, for immersion. Never for prayer. I'll figure out what's different.

Here's what's the same: Journals function as a kind of retrospective map. They tell you where you've been, not where you're going. You can trace the trajectory of the past in any way you want, but ahead of you -- yet to come -- is only blank, beautiful pages.

It's a little scary, like medieval maps of the world, which depicted the "known" world in exquisite detail, then drifted off into a "terra incognita" populated by fearsome sea monsters. Another example: I was in East Berlin back before the Berlin Wall fell. I bought a map of the city, which showed the streets and tram lines in elaborate detail. But beyond the Wall there was -- nothing! No sign of West Berlin, no sign of the West at all.

That's both the invitation -- and fear! -- behind a journal. All the beautiful detail of what came before. All the blankness of what lies ahead. Depending on where your head is at the moment, keeping one can be either a challenge -- or a terror.

Here's all I know: those blank pages will soon be filled, with images as yet unseen, poems as yet undiscovered, and graces abundant.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Re-Entry reconsidered: What marks the way -- when there are no markers

On the Camino to Santiago, we found our way forward by looking for yellow arrows. Hiking out of Pamplona on the first day was hardest. We made several wrong turns before we found them. We weren't used to looking.

Gradually we got our eyes accustomed to the logic of the arrows: where they would be, when they would be, how they'd be displayed. And we began seeing them everywhere.

In time, we found other "markers." Two fellow Camin-istas, one from California and the other from Australia, became markers: they walked our pace; they stopped as frequently as we did. Whenever I saw Linda and Nancy in some cafe or bar, I felt like I was on the right path. Or the English couple we kept running into -- always in cathedrals. Or the Irish couple we shared so many cafe con leches with. These were all markers.

So what marks the path when the Camino is over? That's the question I keep asking. One has surfaced in the last week: it's not a coincidence.

In July I will assume the Bernhard M. Christensen Chair at Augsburg College in Minneapolis. Former president of the College, Christensen was also a teacher and writer. It seemed fitting to find out what he'd written, and I set off for the library to search, emerging with a slim volume entitled, "The Inward Pilgrimage: An Introduction to Christian Spiritual Classics" (Augsburg Publishing House, 1976, 1996). The word "pilgrimage" stood out. Way out. Not a coincidence.

Inviting readers to "walk through the centuries in the company of good friends of God," Christensen introduces his own hiking companions. They cross the centuries: Augustine, the Desert Fathers, Thomas a Kempis, Martin Luther, St. Teresa of Avila, Brother Lawrence, John Bunyan, Soren Kierkegaard, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, along with the authors of the Russian spiritual classic "The Way of a Pilgrim" and medieval Italian stories that comprise "The Little Flowers of St. Francis." These are his "markers."

I'll have additional traveling companions. Thanks to the dear Lisa, I will add Ignatius Loyola to the group, for we collaborate this semester in a course on Lutheran and Ignatian spiritualities. Maybe that's how I can add to the rich Christensen legacy.

It feels like this is the right path.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Re-Entry II--Feral Life

Yes, the question of re-entry is a tough one. Our last day in Mexico City, our group discussed what we would do, concretely, when we returned. I admit I was a tad annoyed. "I don't know yet," I huffed inwardly. "I need to process all this." Yet...yet...I returned to Berkeley a swift two weeks before classes were to start, with 2 syllabi not complete, students un-met, pre-semester meetings, then more meetings, taxes to do, etc. etc. People I hadn't seen that I was eager to be back in touch with. Old injured relationships that began to ache again when I returned to this context. My usual life swept over me with a powerful undertow. "I was in Mexico City? Who was I there, and how am I different now?"

Who was I there? Well, again I felt the tug of feral life, of knowing that all that I work to sustain here isn't necessary. Some of what I sustain here is very good, and some isn't so good. Feral life means, to me, to be pared down closer to what is actually necessary, and to be free to have or not to have the rest, or, more precisely, to be able to weigh its value. There is a tension between feral life and responsibility--I do not want to cede responsibility, professional or personal. That way lies infantilization. But to be able to let go of many of the tasks and roles that mark my daily life here is a nice reminder that I shouldn't just accept it all uncritically, and that I am not, when all is said and done, defined by what I do or don't do.

Feral life is a reminder of the importance of availability, the central dynamism of Ignatian spirituality. To be available is to be in a stance of readiness to respond to whatever God is calling us to, wherever, however. When Ignatius launched the Society of Jesus, he thought of availability literally, that his guys should be ready to travel wherever they were needed, right off, no hesitation. Later, though, with the founding of schools, the Jesuits couldn't be so flighty--in order that the Society as a whole be available to respond to the urgent need for good schools, some members' literal availability was curtailed.

Availability, fundamentally, is less about stuff you do than about who and how we love. People who are literally available all the time never form deep relationships, never carry important responsibility for others. To be thoroughgoingly available means that we must be ready to be called to have our literal availability curtailed for the deeper freedom to be with and for another. We cannot be truly available to respond to God if we have already marked out the parameters of our availability to human beings.

I suspect that good parents know this almost by instinct. To hold a newborn in your arms is to be overwhelmed by the drive to nurture and protect, to be available for whatever this phenomenally vulnerable little kid might need, forever. Availability of this deeper kind is manifested in commitment, not refusal of commitment.

Availability is, in part, willingness to have your heart broken, to have your imagination strained, to be willing to care for people even though your caring for them won't fix their problems. Immersion invites us to be available to a new set of stories, a new set of loves, a new piece of God's world to be joyful, grateful, and, sometimes tearful, for. I hope I am better at that.