05 April 2012
guidebooks on the road to faith | lectio
If you wanted to know how someone got from being a young libertine delighted with humanism, agnosticism and a vague aesthetic mysticism to a Trappist novice ... this is the road (or at least the tourist traps along the road) of books and stories, that got me there.
Above all other influences (except God's direct nudging), I trace my path to the Catholic Faith, the monastery and beyond by books and a few films. Here is a biographical list of those book.
Star Wars eps. IV-VI were probably the most formative narratives that inculcated Good is Good::Evil is BAD. It was my first exposure to mysticism (the Force), desert monks (Obi-Wan Kenobi), asceticism (Luke's training on Dagobah), the possibility of redemption even for the most fallen, even at the moment of death, and that redemption is made by and through love (Darth Vader at the end of Return of the Jedi). When the abbey's tailor had me try on the monastic robes for the first time, he asked if they felt weird, too much like a dress, or just completely foreign. "Brother, are you kidding? These are Jedi Knight robes!"
Small Gods by Terry Pratchett: After reading this at age 14, despite its satirical take on organized religion, I knew that Faith and Belief were Important to being human, and I wanted to know more. Characters, who are essentially Catholic monks and priests in an alternate world, in this story BELIEVE--and do so with passion and fervor. Faith perverted brings about wickedness, but true Faith ends up True and Good--and that was right. There was also an important theme of searching philosophically for Truth, even religious Truth, that ever after flavored my quest. And the story ends with one of the most touching scenes of forgiveness and charity I have ever read, that makes me tear up even now to think about it.*
Also, Pratchett's Carpe Jugulum (though this was post-conversion) took on the theme of faith (via sub-plot), contrasting faith as "a way of keepin' in touch with the neighbours" with that true faith which is "Sacrificin' your own life, one day at a time, to the flame, declarin' the truth of it, workin' for it, breathin' the soul of it"**---this certainly fed an inkling that I was to pursue religious life. Indeed all Pratchett's Discworld novels helped instill a sense of Providence, the spirit world as real and influential, and that humans, when they aren't being total gits, are the most amazing of creatures capable of anything---all pretty fundamental Catholic beliefs.
In Nomine, a Role Playing Game by Derek Pearcey (pub. Steve Jackson Games) to imaginatively play as angels or demons. Heavily influenced by Catholic angelology & traditions (with a little 't') with a good smattering of apocryphal influence thrown in, this book made religion/Catholicism COOL. Theologically/allegorically it described Creation as a symphony in which God's Laws aren't seen as a list of Dos/Don'ts but rather more like laws of aesthetics and nature, form and beauty. When you "play along" according to your nature and destiny with a theme that "plays nice with others", it pulls you into the greater harmony, keeping your theme/tune independent but in sync with a beautiful whole---to sin was to act in discord with one's nature and playing blaringly in contrast to the themes of others, causing cacophony within one's very self---which made sense. It also led to ....
The Prophecy, a movie staring Christopher Walken as the angel Gabriel, now fallen from grace. Again Catholic legends with great aesthetic appeal, but also occasional theology on the relationship between spirits (angels) and souls, faith, and obedience (a great line of an angel: Sometimes you just have to do what you're told) with some fun Native American ecumenism thrown in for good measure. After this and the above, angels were never again cherubic, winged babies or robed, asexual beings playing harps: angels were (for lack of a better term) badass---Did you ever notice how in the Bible, when ever God needed to punish someone, or make an example, or whenever God needed a killing, he sent an angel? Did you ever wonder what a creature like that must be like? A whole existence spent praising your God, but always with one wing dipped in blood. Would you ever really want to see an angel?---by extension, religion now had the same potential for being ... well, badass.
Religions of the World by Huston Smith--along with two college courses on East Asian and World Religions, this broke me out of a semi-atheistic funk back into comfortably agnostic. Humans, being decently good, generally progressing toward knowledge, and at least giving philosophy a good go, seemed be generally trustworthy as a whole, so I concluded that 99% of humanity throughout history couldn't be THAT wrong about belief in a Transcendental something that caused all we know to be. Atheism is an elitist viewpoint. These also caused experimenting with fasting and vegetarianism, vigils (of sorts), and meditation (though more the self-emptying kind rather than proper meditative prayer) with the idea that almost all world's religions have either a form of life set aside to pursues these practices or they were the natural result of serious faith. What do they know that I don't?
English Literature. So my student teaching was British Literature, which I LOVE. But as I studied and taught these texts, I came to this somewhat disturbing (at the time) conclusion. All the writings that I not only liked but stirred my soul were by Catholics or Anglicans (or Milton and Blake) who meant it ... the anonymous writer of The Seafarer, Cædmon, Bede, Herbert, Donne, Blake, Milton, Tolkien, Lewis. Shakespeare also stirred my soul without ever explicitly mentioning faith, but he was in the minority; what was going on here? I gave this some serious thought and decided that after college I was going to start from the earliest extant Christian sect and work my way forward and then, if necessary move on to other faiths until I found one that spoke to my soul.
So I graduated, moved to a small town in North Carolina went to the Catholic Church and knocked on the rectory door. Fr Kowalski answered, and after a short conversation, he handed me This is the Faith by Leo Trese. I recently re-read this book, and would not particularly recommend it to anyone now--it's not terribly well written, gets cheesy at parts and is a product of the 1950s--but it was exactly what I needed at the time to break a fervent believer = troglodyte stereotype. I was still under the general assumption that all the seriously faithful were still fairly backwards on issues like evolution, social justice, and what happened after death to the majority of humanity who'd never even heard of this Jesus fellow. Trese answered all those questions (backed up the Catechism of the Catholic Church) that made me realize that at least Catholicism had contemporary answers to ancient questions, backed up by a ridiculous amount of tradition and theology. And they had St. Thomas Aquinas. This was not an anti-intellectual faith. I found the Sacramental and Apostolic arguments for Catholicism (especially compared to what seemed political or selfish reasons for many of the Protestant churches' origins) compelling for it being as close as one was going to get.
Obviously I now feel a little more secure about Catholicism's truth than "close" this side of the veil.
Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory takes place during the clerical persecutions in 1930s Mexico, and is about a priest who celebrates mass, hears confessions, and baptizes children in secret, under constant threat of death. He is guilty of concubinage, excessive drinking and vanity, cowardice and pride; though he is also painfully aware of his sinfulness. But he knows that living his vocation is more important, even though at times he doesn't want to, even though his life would be easier not to, even though it brings him to martyrdom in the end. This Was Right.
Warriors of God by Walter Nigg is, perhaps written by a Lutheran arguing that Protestants need religious orders. To bolster his argument, he wrote this book surveying the major religious orders and their founders. In his section on the Carthusians (who are awesomely hardcore but more eremetic than coenobitic---and I know my limits) he wrote that Protestants might not understand the value of a completely contemplative order who which doesn't do anything tangibly practical. But he told the story from Exodus of Israel's battle with Amalek. As long as Moses' hands were raised, the Israelites prevailed. But Moses's arms grew tired and they began to fall, and the Israelis began to lose, Aaron and Hur come and hold up the arms of Moses and the Israelis win the battle! To Nigg, Moses was a figure of the Church, and Aaron and Hur were the religious orders holding up her arms by prayer as the battle is waged against the forces of evil in the world. Nigg asked where all Christians would be if these hidden, silent monks were not ever at their prayer. I said to myself, after reading that passage, "That's what I want my prayer life to accomplish. But I'm not going to be a monk."
The Roman Breviary of the Divine Office/Liturgy of the Hours: other than the Mass this is THE Prayer of the Church. It's four volumes, divided by liturgical season, and it orders the psalms to be recited/chanted and the readings (including readings by the Church Fathers, Doctors and saints in addition to scripture) for prayer seven times a day that is required of religious and priests (parish priests are held to just five of those times) and recommended for all the faithful. It was nice and organized and biblical, and it gave a structure to my day according to faith. And it felt RIGHT. This wasn't just something that was good for me to be doing. This was something I was SUPPOSED to be doing. But I can do this as a secular, layman.
So I moved, I'm teaching, and I'm hanging out at a Benedictine monastery as my church, and as an oasis in what I consider the Purgatory that is the Piedmont, and since I already love the Divine Office, I'm joining the Monks in Chant as often as I can. And I figure it's worth reading the Rule of St. Benedict since I like these guys so much. .... "hey, you know this makes a lot of sense in terms of how someone wanting to live a serious Christian life might make a go of it... but I don't want to be a monk."
The Fire Within by Fr Thomas Dubay introduced me to St John of the Cross, St Teresa of Avila and contemplative prayer. They were talking to God, He was talking back ... they were in love--In love with God--and I wanted to be, too.
I started reading Teresa's autobiography. She sinned, she was vain, she liked to talk, she fell, she got back up ... talking to God was more important. She fought, she struggled, she prayed, she suffered and went through a lot of self-pity ... talking to God was more important. This Made Sense.
The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (and Mothers) compiles many of the aphorisms and short tales of the earliest desert monks of Egypt (mostly) and Palestine. Passionate, practical, devoted to communal love and reducing everything in life to God and the necessities that one might live for God before all else. Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and he said to him, "Abba, as far as I can, I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?" Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands toward heaven; his fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, "If you will, you can become all flame."
The Cloud of Unknowing by probably a Carthusian or Cistercian hermit. Apophatic prayer seeks to go beyond images, words, ideas, or concepts, none of which will be able to describe the infinitely transcendent God. So you sit, and you desire God. For at least thirty minutes. And you do it everyday. EVERY day. No words, no feeling, no images. Desire for God willed into the darkness. Pray with the intensity of shouting FIRE! or HELP! as you are drowning. Don't do it to the exclusion of all other prayer (especially the Mass), or you'll lose perspective. This Made Sense.
John Climacus's The Ladder of Divine Ascent: Wow, monks are awesomely hardcore.
"so you want to be a monk? well, best take it seriously."
... I don't really want to be a monk.
::shrug:: "whatever you say, boss."
Then one day, I went to St Lawrence Basilica for Sunday mass the day after my dear friend told me she was getting married. I was praying for her engagement/marriage and reflecting about marriage and a thought, very clear, very insistent, said "You are to marry your soul to God and the Church and no one else."
How am I going to do that.
"In a monastery, as a monk."
It's possible those thoughts were right, and coming home was the wrong thing to do; maybe the voice only meant for me to be in the monastery for a time in preparation for living a life of celibacy in the world. I don't know for sure, and perhaps I did turn my back on my vocation. But God never ceases to offer us the grace to come to Him even if we make our way there slowly by crooked paths. I have faith and hope in that promise.
There are many, many other writings (lives of the saints for example) and experiences that reinforced this over the seven years from Conversion to getting on the bus for Peosta, or simply inspirational and spiritually formative (as apart from vocationally formative), but these are the so-to-speak monastic influences that remain solid in my mind, the landmarks I notice when I look back over that journey.
*Brutha stood up, without a second glance at his corpse.
"Hah. I wasn't expecting you," he said.
Death stopped leaning against the wall.
HOW FORTUNATE YOU WERE.
"But there's still such a lot to be done…"
YES. THERE ALWAYS IS.
Brutha followed the gaunt figure through the wall where, instead of the privy that occupied the far side in normal space, there was…
The light was brilliant, crystalline, in a black sky filled with stars.
"Ah. There really is a desert. Does everyone get this?" said Brutha.
"And what is at the end of the desert?"
Brutha considered this.
Death grinned and stepped aside.
What Brutha had thought was a rock in the sand was a hunched figure, sitting clutching his knees. It looked paralyzed with fear.
"Vorbis?" he said.
He looked at Death
"But Vorbis died a hundred years ago!"
YES. HE HAD TO WALK IT ALL ALONE. ALL ALONE WITH HIMSELF. IF HE DARED.
"He's been here for a hundred years?"
POSSIBLY NOT. TIME IS DIFFERENT HERE. IT IS…MORE PERSONAL.
"Ah. You mean a hundred years can pass like a few seconds?"
A HUNDRED YEARS CAN PASS LIKE INFINITY.
The black-on-black eyes stared imploringly at Brutha, who reached out automatically, without thinking…and then hesitated.
HE WAS A MURDERER, said Death. AND A CREATOR OF MURDERERS. A TORTURER. WITHOUT PASSION. CRUEL. CALLOUS. COMPASSIONLESS.
"Yes. I know. He's Vorbis," said Brutha. Vorbis changed people. Sometimes he changed them into dead people. But he always changed them. That was his triumph.
"But I'm me," he said.
Vorbis stood up, uncertainly, and followed Brutha across the desert.
Death watched them walk away.
**"Now if I'd seen [God], really there, really alive, it'd be in me like a fever. If I thought there was some god who really did care two hoots about people, who watched 'em like a father and cared for 'em like a mother... well, you wouldn't catch me sayin' things like 'There are two sides to every question' and 'We must respect other people's beliefs.' You wouldn't find me just bein' gen'rally nice in the hope that it'd turn out all right in the end, not if that flame was burnin' in me like an unforgivin' sword. And I did say burnin' ... 'cos that's what it'd be. You say that you don't burn folk and sacrifice people any more, but that's what true faith would mean, y'see? Sacrificin' your own life, one day at a time to the flame, declarin' the truth of it, workin' for it, breathin' the soul of it. That's religion. Anythin' else is just... is just bein' nice."