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Gardening for Life.

10-Feb-15

A nice piece on Doug Tallamy and the new gardening.  ”We have to raise the bar on our landscapes. In the past, we have asked one thing of our gardens: that they be pretty. Now they have to support life, sequester carbon, feed pollinators, and manage water.”  Real life always works this way: something always has multiple purposes.  And the real gardening is to nourish life.

 

Main Street, Denning, February.

10-Feb-15

This is an actual picture of the road as I drove home yesterday along Denning Road.

Wisdom.

09-Feb-15

“Wisdom consists of doing the next thing that you have to do, doing it with all your heart, and doing it with delight… and that delight is a sense of the sacred.” – Helen Luke

Something Is Happening.

01-Feb-15

A very nice article by Tony Grafton which testifies to the work of the Paideia Institute, a not-for-profit cultural institution inspired by Fr. Reginald Foster with a focus on linking a classical, humanistic education with the joy of being human.  I have spent much of my life with the people mentioned in the article, and it amazes me to see their lives coming to fruit, and so much of it sprung from the vitality and truth of the work of Reginaldus.  I have had this feeling several times in the past few years, that I have been part of something special, something which is really succeeding within its own small world, something which is changing the way Classics are lived and taught.  I’ll be one of the seminar leaders for the Paideia Institute’s Living Latin in New York conference in two weeks, and teaching at SALVI’s Biduum Latinum two weeks after that.  In June I’ll be one of two instructors tapped to bring this new living approach to Latin abroad to Africa: there is apparently some feeling there that this new, more vital, “American” approach can give Latin an accessibility and relevance that old approaches have not been able to summon.

Learning the Human Cost of Our Consumption.

01-Feb-15

A Norwegian newspaper has created a reality show that involves sending three fashion bloggers to Cambodia to work in a Cambodian sweatshop.  This is an effective show for several reasons – the beauty of the young Norwegians, the fact that beautiful women in distress makes for good television, the enjoyment people get from watching spoiled rich people confront something real – but this is sort of like a grown-up, purposeful retooling of a typical Paris Hilton reality show.  The rich always offer the same refrain in their own defense, wen confronted by things like this: “We’re actually doing them a favor, they’d be a lot worse off if those fashion bloggers weren’t promoting consumption all the time.”  Slaveowners in the United States also justified slavery as something good that they were doing for Africans.  The answer to this is that if a close friend of the family is having money trouble, you’re not doing him a favor by taking the opportunity to buy his goods or his labor at thieving prices.  The Golden Rule, applied to employers, reads “Offer to others a job you would like to have yourself.”  Even the dirtiest, least glamorous tasks – cleaning sewers, butchering animals – can be turned into jobs that are worth having and mean something.

And in general, I think it is entirely good that we know the human costs of our consumption.  Sometimes I think this might be a good plan for a system of education: students would have to learn, by briefly participating in, every part of the world economy, and this way learn how we humans feed, clothe, shelter, entertain, and govern ourselves.  We would know then the cost of our consumption, and be able to trace iniquity down its massive trunk all the way to its multitudinous roots touch the soil.

Cheryl Strayed’s Initiation.

30-Jan-15

I think it is entirely to Cheryl Strayed’s credit as a writer and as a human being that she can write a book which one reviewer – admittedly, not a very observant one – can reduce to the question “What do you have to say now, God?” while I find it religious in outlook and reminiscent of Dante. This is possible because she has captured something real – and consequently, to a religious person her book will feel religious, while to an irreligious person it will feel the opposite – the same divergence in reaction found in all things real.

Several people I know put the book down because they found Strayed unsympathetic as a figure: she went off on a major wilderness excursion utterly unprepared, and she paints a painfully honest portrait of what she was, which can seem very entitled, perhaps to a degree Strayed the author may not have even realized. She uses curse words in the Pacific Northwest style, to make it clear to the reader that she’s “keepin’ it real,” and you have to wade through a fair amount of “fuck her” and “fuck him” and “fuck them” as she deals with other people, many of whom seem genuinely good and not deserving of her wrath. You have to deal with her complaining that her (seemingly lovely) mother never told her to apply to Harvard and Yale. But I was terribly moved by the book – moved to tears again and again, at how terribly we treat each other, at how strange and marvellous our spiritual life is, in which the horrors of the way we treat each other find some kind of transformation which makes it almost worth it. Almost. There is always some horrible remainder, some kind of marring of whatever goodness there is; and always some goodness blossoming out of the evil. In the end, any true, fully conscious acceptance is hard-won. I have so much to say about the book that I’ve decided to divide my comments into two parts, with this first section dealing with the emotional experience she had on her trip, and a second part dealing with the aftermath of that experience – how it changes us, as people. Because I think her experience was an Everyman experience, with broad human relevance.

The book serves as a kind of textbook of how to set the stage for spiritual transformation (or conversion, or maturation, or whatever you want to call it) – though admittedly, any genuine transformation ingenuously told could serve as a template. The first thing she does is recognize the need for transformation: and realizes it desperately, like a beggar. “I had to change. I had to change was the thought that drove me in those months of planning” (57). The second thing is to create a space where the transformation can take place. She ties up the rest of her life and puts it in a bundle, throwing it aside for awhile. She moves out of her apartment, divorces her husband, resolves herself of all responsibilities and cuts all ties. The book contains no descriptions of having to take two days off from the trip to renew her car registration. She had put herself in a place where only one thing matters. In our normal lives, ten thousand things matter every day, and for some reason or other, it is exceptionally difficult – almost impossible – to take dramatic steps forward in such circumstances. Dramatic steps are probably only necessary in personal crisis, but Strayed certainly was in such a crisis. And she managed to create a new, temporary way of living, where only one thing mattered: the life of a through-hiker.

I wasn’t thinking, I’m hiking on the Pacific Crest Trail. I wasn’t even thinking, What have I gotten myself into? I was thinking only of moving myself forward. My mind was a crystal vase that contained only that one desire. My body was its opposite: a bag of broken glass. Every time I moved, it hurt. (63)

I love the bag of broken glass metaphor: that is another joy of this book, so many of the metaphors are marvellously apt. And we know what it is like to be in that position, hiking or biking or whatever it may be, when the pain and exhaustion are so intense that they drive away all other thoughts. This too is a traditional element of the mystics’ discipline, the use of pain to clear the mind. Ironically, Strayed, when discouraged by the rigors of the trip, uses this very fact as a reason to quit :

As the notion of quitting settled in, I came up with another reason to bolster my belief that this whole PCT hike had been an outlandishly stupid idea. I’d set out to hike the trail so that I could reflect upon my life, to think about everything that had broken me and make myself whole again. But the truth was, at least so far, I was consumed only with my most immediate and physical suffering. Since I’d begun hiking, the struggles of my life had only fluttered occasionally through my mind. Why, oh why, had my good mother died and how is it I could live and flourish without her? How could my family, once so close and strong, have fallen apart so swiftly and soundly in the wake of her death? What had I done when I’d squandered my marriage with Paul – the solid, sweet husband who’d loved me so steadfastly? Why had I gotten myself in a sad tangle wth heroin and Joe and sex with men I hardly knew?

These were the questions I’d held like stones all through the winter and spring, as I prepared to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. The ones I’d wept over and wailed over, excavated in excruciating detail in my journal. I’d planned to put them all to rest while hiking the PCT. I’d imagined endless meditations upon sunsets or while staring out across pristine mountain lakes. I’d thought I’d weep tears of cathartic sorrow and restorative joy each day of my journey. Instead, I only moaned, and not because my heart ached. It was because my feet did and my back did and so did the still-open wounds all around my hips. And also, during that second week on the trail – when spring was on the very cusp of turning officially into summer – because I was so hot I thought my head would explode. (84-5)

I quote so much of it because I think it quite brilliantly describes the actual mental state of the hiker, and of the pilgrim too. What you are trying to do is to get yourself back into your senses. We spend so much time literally out of our senses: in our heads, in our thoughts, in our plans, in the past, in the future, whatever it might be. God/transformation/perspective (whatever you want to call this leap in consciousness – mystics do not sweat semantics) is almost never easy to find there. And for many people only great exertions, and really great physical suffering, will return us to our senses. Danger works well also: Strayed talks about reaching another level when she had to cross a sloping field of ice, where a bad step could send her sliding down the mountain. That is the sort of thing which will clear your mind.

Of course I should note that many people do not realize that this is the way actual spiritual practice works. An actual spiritual practice makes the practitioner very skeptical of the mind. God is greater than your conceptions – obviously. Even if you look at your room and then close your eyes and picture it in your mind, you can see immediately how many details, how much richness your mind immediately abridges, even of the most pedestrian things. Any kind of spirituality limited to the carrying capacity of the mind will not, in the end, satisfy a human being. A close friend of mine is pregnant for the first time, and was telling me how amazed she was to see an x-ray (or sonogram, or whatever they are doing nowadays) of her child’s skeleton in her womb – made by her, she supposed, but certainly not by her mind: no mind could assemble a child and make it work. It was an entirely different kind of knowing that was inside her, and was her, an order of intellect that dwarfed the one in her mind, and possessing an intimacy with life compared to which her mind was just a spectator. When we are astray – when our conscious minds have utterly failed us – safety is in that deeper self. The spiritual practice is an attempt to reach into that deeper knowledge which is inside us, and which makes our conscious minds seem paltry.

Hence you really cannot think your way to transformation. You cannot think about spiritual problems by pondering them harder. You think about them by living, and oddly enough, by living more like an animal. You have to go down the ladder of being, and operate on the same level a woman’s womb does, which (thank goodness) is not taking orders from the brain, which would be utterly incompetent for the work of generating new life. When we live more like animals, we are living in a way we were designed to live, with concerns we were designed to handle, instinctually: what to drink, what to eat, where to sleep. As we let our instincts take over those small details, they gain strength for other things: where to go, whom to trust, when to make love and when to be silent and when to say something and what to say. Those are spiritual tasks for a whole lifetime. But the simple life of the wilderness is where those seeds of life can grow:

I realized that in spite of my hardships, as I approached the end of the first leg of my journey, I’d begun to feel a blooming affection for the PCT. My backpack, heavy as it was, had come to feel lke my almost animate companion. No longer was it the absurd Volkswagen Beetle I’d painfully hoisted on in that motel room in Mojave a couple of weeks before. Now my backpack had a name: Monster.

I meant it in the nicest possible way. I was amazed that what I needed to survive could be carried on my back. And, most surprising of all, that I could carry it. That I could bear the unbearable. These realizations about my physical, material life couldn’t help but spill over into the emotional and spiritual realm. That my complicated life could be made so simple was astounding. It had begun to occur to me that perhaps it was okay that I hadn’t spent my days on the trail pondering the sorrows of my life, that perhaps by being forced to focus on my physical suffering some of my emotional suffering would fade away. By the end of that second week, I realized that since I’d begun my hike, I hadn’t shed a single tear. (92)

I have already written about how her pack – which was far heavier than her trip required – seems to have been a psychic self-punishment mechanism. She was, early on, aware of its symbolic element. And that is one of the amazing things: when you put yourself in a position where only one thing matters, the details around you seem to stand out more clearly as symbols.

It always amazes me how necessary the wild is for this process; it seems to me that civilization cannot offer anything comparable. One of the first things it does is create wonder, or a beginner’s mind: an awareness that you do not know, that you are confronted by something great, inexplicable, and mysterious. Strayed hits this theme perfectly as well:

As I ascended, I realized I didn’t understand what a mountain was, or even if I was hiking up one mountain or a series of them glommed together. I’d not grown up around mountains. I’d walked on a few, but only on well-trod paths on day hikes. They’d seemed to be nothing more than really big hills. But they were not that. They were, I now realized, layered and complex, inexplicable and analogous to nothing. Each time I reached the place that I thought was the top of the mountain or the series of mountains glommed together, I was wrong. There was still more up to go, even if first there was a tiny slope that went tantalizingly down. So up I went until I reached what really was the top. I knew it was the top because there was snow. Not on the ground, but falling from the sky, in thin flakes that swirled in mad patterns, pushed by the wind.

I hadn’t expected it to rain in the desert, and I certainly hadn’t expected it to snow. As with the mountains, there’d been no deserts where I grew up, and though I’d gone on day hikes in a couple of them, I didn’t really understand what deserts were. I’d taken them to be dry, hot, and sandy places full of snakes, scorpions, and cactuses. They were not that. They were that and also a bunch of other things. They were layered and complex and inexplicable and analogous to nothing. My new existence was beyond analogy, I realized on that second day on the trail.
I was in entirely new terrain. (63)

“My new existence was beyond analogy” – this is a place where wonder can grow, and where the sacred can take root.

Besides creating a beginner’s mind – “here I do not know, here I must shut up and learn” – nature is important in the process because it contains an implicit cosmology. It is large; it is incomprehensibly vast and powerful. That is important, because it changes the relative importance of you, or your ego. Nature’s vastness implies your smallness. This is the first stage of the experience, a fear before it: “the fear of the Lord is the beginning [but only the beginning] of wisdom.” Strayed’s first reaction to the vastness is to cower before it (which is fine, and indeed necessary):

Before I began hiking the PCT, I’d imagined that I’d sleep inside my tent only when it threatened to rain, that most nights I’d lay my sleeping bag on top of my tarp and sleep beneath the stars, but about this, like so much else, I’d been wrong. Each evening, I ached for the shelter of my tent, for the smallest sense that something was shielding me from the entire rest of the world, keeping me safe not from danger, but from vastness itself. I loved the dim, clammy dark of my tent, the cozy familiarity of the way I arranged my few belongings all around me each night. (93)

I will pull one other bit of emotive cosmology from the book, to wit:

I prayed fervently, rabidly, to God, any god, to a god I could not identify or find. I cursed my mother, who’d not given me any religious education. Resentful of her own repressive Catholic upbringing, she’d avoided church altogether in her adult life, and now she was dying and I didn’t even have God. I prayed to the whole wide universe and hoped that God would be in it, listening to me. I prayed and prayed, and then I faltered. Not because I couldn’t find God, but because suddenly I absolutely did: God was there, I realized, and God had no intention of making things happen or not, of saving my mother’s life. God was not a granter of wishes. God was a ruthless bitch. (23)

Which is, I want to point out, a good, solid, fifty-percent consonant with the Christian conception. God has his good side too, of course, but one can’t forget the old saw, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the Living God.” Or “Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God” – presumably because God loves him an occasional opportunity to stick it to people.

But you transition off of this fear, to becoming more at home in this world. This fearful cosmology ultimately contains you – with all your badness – and for that reason we wear it far better than some immaculate purity.

The trigger I’d pulled in stepping into the snow made me more alive to my senses than ever. Uncertain as I was as I pushed forward, I felt right in my pushing, as if the effort itself meant something. That perhaps being amidst the undesecrated beauty of the wilderness meant I too could be undesecrated, regardless of what I’d lost or what had been taken from me, regardless of the regrettable things I’d done to others or myself or the regrettable things that had been done to me. Of all the things I’d been skeptical about, I didn’t feel skeptical about this: the wilderness had a clarity that included me. (143)

You begin with a recognition that you are part of this larger thing; and then the feeling grows as you see your similarity to the other lives around you. She sees a deer and says, spontaneously, the words which she will later apply to herself:

“It’s okay,” I whispered to the deer, not knowing what I was going to say until I said it: “You’re safe in this world.” (233)

The boundaries between the world and us, macrocosm and microcosm, fuzz somewhat as we contemplate the bare facts of nature: we see ourselves eating the berries like the birds and bears, drinking the water like the deer and fish, drawing in even the lifeless air each second to sustain us. The lifelessness we see around us is in fact flowing into and out of us, constantly: it is within us as much as anything else. And this is precisely what Strayed sees, again, delineating the steps quite clearly, and experiencing it on an evening when she symbolically did not need her tent, and concomitantly broke with her own sense of aggrievement:

One night I made camp in a grassy spot from which I could see the evidence of those fires: a hazy scrim of smoke blanketing the westward view. I sat in my chair for an hour, looking out across the land as the sun faded into the smoke. I’d seen a lot of breathtaking sunsets in my evenings on the PCT, but this one was more spectacular than any in a while, the light made indistinct, melting into a thousand shades of yellow, pink, orange, and purple over the waves of green land. I could’ve been reading Dubliners or falling off to sleep in the cocoon of my sleeping bag, but on this night the sky was too mesmerizing to leave. As I watched it, I realized I’d passed the midpoint of my hike. I’d been out on the trail for fifty-some days. If all went as planned, in another fifty days I’d be done with the PCT. Whatever was going to happen to me out here would have happened.

“Oh remember the Red River Valley and the cowboy who loved you so true…” I sang, my voice trailing, not knowing the rest of the words. Images of Kyle’s little face and hands came to me, reverberations of his flawless voice [a small child she met on the trail, who had family troubles]. I wondered if I would ever be a mother and what kind of “horrible situation” Kyle’s mother was in, where his father might be and where mine was. What is he doing right this minute? I’d thought occasionally throughout my life, but I was never able to imagine it. I didn’t know my own father’s life. He was there, but invisible, a shadow beast in the woods; a fire so far away it’s nothing but smoke.

That was my father: the man who hadn’t fathered me. It amazed me every time. Again and again and again. Of all the wild things, his failure to love me the way he should have had always been the wildest thing of all. But on that night as I gazed over the darkening land fifty-some nights out on the PCT, it occurred to me that I didn’t have to be amazed by him anymore.
There were so many other amazing things in this world.

They opened up inside of me like a river. Like I didn’t know I could take a breath and then I breathed. I laughed with the joy of it, and the next moment I was crying my first tears on the PCT. I cried and I cried and I cried. I wasn’t crying because I was happy. I wasn’t crying because I was sad. I wasn’t crying because of my mother or my father or Paul. I was crying because I was full. Of those fifty-some hard days on the trail and of the 9,760 days that had come before them too.

I was entering. I was leaving. California streamed behind me like a long silk veil. I didn’t feel like a big fat idiot anymore. And I didn’t feel like a hard-ass motherfucking Amazonian queen. I felt fierce and humble and gathered up inside, like I was safe in this world too. (233-4)

I have to admire, again and again, Strayed’s ability to fuse the images of the trail with her own personal story: the way she sits admiring the sunset just as she earlier dreamed she had, then thinks of the small child she had just met that day and segues seamlessly into thinking about motherhood and fatherhood, then to her father, who is related to the fire in the distance. It is brilliantly done, and utterly convincing. And the conclusion makes sense to me as well: a sense of safety, ultimate safety despite pain, despite death, despite sin, despite failure.

To be at home in this world: of course this is a horribly, horribly difficult task. In fact it never fully happens. At times it is truly awful to think of how terrible we all are to each other, the suffering it causes, generation before generation, all way backwards in time. Strayed’s father was hideously abusive:

It had always been my mother at the center of me, but in that room with Vince I suddenly felt my father like a stake in my heart. I hate him, I’d said during my teens. I didn’t know what I felt for him now. He was like a home movie that played in my head, one whose narrative was broken and sketchy. There were big dramatic scenes and inexplicable moments floating free from time, perhaps because most of what I remember about him happened in the first six years of my life. There was my father smashing our dinner plates full of food against the wall in a rage. There was my father choking my mother while straddling her chest and banging her head against the wall. There was my father scooping my sister and me out of bed in the middle of the night when I was five to ask if we would leave forever with him, while my mother stood by, bloodied and clutching my sleeping baby brother to her chest, begging him to stop. When we cried instead of answered, he collapsed onto his knees and pressed his forehead to the floor and screamed so desperately I was sure we were all going to die right then and there.

Once, in the midst of one of his tirades, he threatened to throw my mother and her children naked onto the street, as if we weren’t his children too. We lived in Minnesota then. It was winter when he made the threat. I was at an age when everything was literal. It seemed precisely like a thing that he would do. I had an image of the four of us, naked and shrieking, running through the icy snow. (131-2)

There is a tremendous tension between these two scenes: the grown-up woman watching the sunset and deciding that she doesn’t have to worry anymore about the way her father failed her; and the actual facts of her father’s abuse. There is an asymmetry here, which Strayed is, I am sure, quite aware of, and it poses a real theological problem. There is always that remainder, that sense that maybe the transcendence is not worth the having, if bought at this horrible price. Of course all the other options are even worse – they are all just variants of being caught in the hatred forever – but still, the horror of it is so palpable that I can understand how other readers can find Strayed’s writing fundamentally irreligious. Ivan Karamazov declares that he rejects God because the whole universe is not worth the suffering of one child.

Strayed does not take her book into realms of philosophy and theology: hers is an account of her experience on the trail, where somehow the balance of her life tipped finally to the positive side. And it is marvellously done – really one of the very few travel books which really tells a tale of transformation. not just escapism or therapy. The closest she comes to the theological problem of actually accepting monotheism – which ultimately makes God responsible for all the evil as well as all the good – is in her use of the term “wild.”  That is what “wild” means to her – wild means beyond good and evil, irreducible, incomprehensible, hidden, unknown, transcendent: the condition in the Garden of Eden, when God tells Adam and Eve not to bother with questions of “good” and “evil” – as soon as you drop into dualism, all will be lost.  And her last name – a name she took after her divorce – is an image of how lostness is a precondition of all deeper knowledge.  The word Dante uses to describe this condition – smarrito, usually translated “astray” – he later uses to describe his condition when he sees God face to face – he was “smarrito,” dazzled, stupefied.  And to go from one meaning of the word to another, as Strayed does, means seeing it all: heaven, purgatory, and hell.  ”God hath consigned all men to unbelief, that he might have mercy on them all.”  For Strayed the dictionary definition of the word strayed sums it up:

To wander from the proper path, to deviate from the direct course, to be lost, to become wild, to be without a mother or father, to be without a home, to move about aimlessly in search of something, to diverge or digress. (96)

I would like to dwell further on the remainder that I have been talking about, the sense that the suffering utterly corrupts the joy. This is not the actual fact: the light wins, in actuality, for most of us, but the line is fine. For every person there come days when it would seem to be better to be dead than alive, or best never to have been born. This is the problem that comes after the experience: you feel at last at home in the world, but the world in fact offers the same quantity and quality of suffering it always has. You come from your experience better; but the world is much the same. Strayed does not deal with this problem directly, but the book’s perspective – it was written a decade and a half after the actual trip – and certain comments Strayed makes, show the existence of the problem in Strayed’s mind as much as in everyone else’s. I will deal with that problem in the next essay.

The Project.

19-Jan-15

I find this image, of a man putting a microphone and recorder to the lips of the Sphinx, so compelling an image for so much of what I find myself doing, and so much of what I think humanity as a whole has to do, to make sense of our new lives, which are somehow a continuation of the old, and far less free of them than we think.  It is by Mark Tansey, and is called The Secret of the Sphinx.

Why Young People Don’t Go To Church.

18-Jan-15

A very nice piece from the National Catholic Reporter, in which a priest simply records all the reasons he is given for young people’s dissatisfaction with the Church, in an evening devoted to the topic.  Every single reason is a good one.  Almost every single problem the Church has in bringing the Good News does not come from Jesus: built on sand, it will wash away.  You can see the problems in the comments section too.  It literally devolves into fights about whether women monitoring the viscosity of their vaginal mucus counts as a Christian mode of birth control or not.  Almost everything you hear from the pulpit or from the sacristy rats can be summed up as “Strain at gnats, and swallow those camels.”

Against The Queen of Pentacles.

17-Jan-15


Suzanne Vega put an album out in 2014, “Tales from the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles,” which is at least one (and probably two) too many prepositional phrases, but the concept of the album is intriguing: Pentacles, she explains, in the Tarot deck are the suit of the material world; of comforts, the earth and generosity, but also greed and selfishness; our age, in general, and New York, her city (and mine), in particular.  I love how she captures the hatred of the anti-materialistic man – and what is he but a Fool? – and then dissolves it again into a devil-may-care attitude.

How I hate the Queen of Pentacles!
Sitting on her golden throne
In her domestic tyranny
All roads lead back to her alone.

The whole wide world is a great big drain
And the vortex is her heart.
Her needs and wants and
Wishes and whims
All take precedence on this chart.

But what do I know?
My card’s the fool, the fool, the fool
That merry rootless man,
With air beneath my footstep
And providence as my plan.
Providence as my plan.

Oh it’s such expensive innocence!
Never knowing any cost.
She throws around her finery
For us to fetch when it gets lost.

But what do I know?
My card’s the Fool! The fool, the fool.
That merry rootless man.
With air beneath my footstep
And providence as my plan.
Providence as my plan.

Christian Teaching on Insult, Blasphemy, Etc.

15-Jan-15

The Pope has weighed in on the Charlie Hebdo killings, and he falls into the “Well, I don’t like murder normally, but…” camp:

The Holy Father spoke to journalists in a broad interview on the papal flight to the Philippines about the Charlie Hebdo massacre and the controversy about the magazine’s new cover this week. Religious freedom and freedom of expression, he said, are fundamental human rights. But they are also not a total liberties [sic]. “There is a limit,” he said, speaking in Italian. “Every religion has its dignity. I cannot mock a religion that respects human life and the human person.” He broke it down in everyday terms, something that is coming to be known as classic Francis teaching style. “If [a close friend] says a swear word against my mother, he’s going to get a punch in the nose,” he explained.

Or if a close friend says a swear word against my mother, I’ll kill him, and his friends, and also anyone who tries to stop me, and then head to a Jewish bakery and start killing people there too, because hey, it was my mom.

The Gospel message of course is quite different.  In the Gospels, Jesus offers nine beatitudes, showing nine Christian spiritual practices, and interestingly, one of them is specifically being insulted:

He said: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

Every single one of these beatitudes, treated as a spiritual practice, yields interesting results, and creates a spiritual life quite different from those recommended by other traditions.  I have much to say about all of them, but here I will focus on the ninth, often (but unnecessarily) treated as a subset of the eighth.

I have always been curious about the spiritual guru Gurdjieff, who made insults one of his primary modes of training his disciples.  The theory behind it is that a human being who can be easily affected by the words of others necessarily is not conceiving of themselves in sufficiently broad perspective.  We attach ourselves to small things: what we look like in the mirror, how much trivia we have stored in our brain, what clubs we are part of – and the result is a kind of narcissistic paranoia, always poised over the abyss, always hanging by a thread, always craving more validation from some new source.  Maturity must involve some kind of severing of this addictive umbilicus, and one of the ways of doing this is precisely what Jesus praises as a way to blessedness: suffering opposition, and particularly insult and false testimony.  There is an entire tradition of Christian spiritual practice trying to be a “holy fool,” a person who seeks to be good but does not want any worldly reward for it.  To have a good reputation is to ask in a temptation, which is to be good for the sake of one’s ego.  When you come to the realization that almost all of your good deeds are just a form of narcissism, and you are really no better off spiritually for all your “good deeds,” – that is one of the realizations that can produce actual transformation, into an entirely different kind of goodness.  One that ends up being a lot less impressive to other people – the flash is gone – but a lot more honest, and a lot less wrought.

This spiritual practice of leads naturally to a respect for freedom of speech, and of course, freedom to insult and blaspheme and everything else.  The Verba Seniorum speak of a “wise man” who sat at the gates of Athens, insulting everybody – this was thought of as wisdom:

Once there was a disciple of a Greek philosopher who was commanded by his Master for three years to give money to everyone who insulted him. When this period of trial was over, the Master said to him: Now you can go to Athens and learn wisdom. When the disciple was entering Athens he met a certain wise man who sat at the gate insulting everybody who came and went. He also insulted the disciple who immediately burst out laughing. Why do you laugh when I insult you? said the wise man. Because, said the disciple, for three years I have been paying for this kind of thing and now you give it to me for nothing. Enter the city, said the wise man, it is all yours. Abbot John (the Dwarf) used to tell the above story, saying: This is the door of God by which our fathers (and mothers) rejoicing in many tribulations enter into the City of Heaven.

If there were no freedom of speech, there would be no wise men sitting at the city-gates insulting people either.  At some point, someone’s “dignity” would get ruffled, and they’d get rid of the wise man.  And that is the enemy of free speech – that word used by the pope – a sense of “dignity,” that social stiffness brought on by social climbing, which makes it so humiliating for us to be exposed as no better than anyone else.  It really is the enemy of the spiritual life as well.  There is a fine story of St. Philippo Neri, who was sent to investigate the claims of the saintliness of a particular nun.  He rode all day through the rain, and meeting her in the reception-room of the convent and seeing her gleaming, potentially vainglorious garments, his sense of suspicion was aroused.  He told her his feet were hurting but he couldn’t get his muddy boots off; could she help him?  She took offense at even the suggestion that she should take off some stranger’s muddy boots, and so he stood up and left.  Whatever she represented, he was convinced it wasn’t Christianity.

Jesus does not, of course, say that giving insult is one of the ways to blessedness; it may be necessary for a Christian to be insulted, but to choose to be the person who insults others necessarily has spiritual dangers.  Gurdjieff may not have ended up being a very nice person.  But Christians who understand their own tradition should have no problems with mockery and abuse.  Jesus puts undergoing mockery and insult up there with seeking justice, or seeking peace.

Let me also note one thing about blasphemy.  There are blasphemy laws in countries like Ireland (now looking at getting rid of its statute) and Italy.  These laws, all over the world, should go.  Christians should certainly oppose them – Christ himself was brought to trial under such laws.  The very notion of “offering insult to the Deity” is comical – I am quite certain the Deity can handle it.  Muslims often think that the Christian idea that God can have a son is inherently blasphemous; whereas I, a Christian, think that having a son is not degrading at all, and many things religions ascribe to God are far more degrading than children would be.  But all of it is projection.  To make laws based on such projections is self-evidently unwise.  Blasphemy laws are typically considered just “breach of peace” laws, but sometimes the peace gets disturbed.  They say there was a riot when “The Rite of Spring” was performed.  This is not a reason for prosecuting Stravinsky.

This is not to say that there are not things that are holy – there are – and that how we treat these holy things doesn’t say a tremendous amount about who we are.  But that self-unfolding is holy too.  As we do it, of course, we rely on others to mirror it back to us, sometimes mockingly, and in that process we learn to see.