Tag Archives: spirituality

The fish and the hairdryer

SmokedRainbowTroutDo you like smoked fish? I do, a lot. Nom nom nom! It’s full of that famous new type of flavor, umami, which distinguishes simple salt and vinegar, sugar and bitter, from luscious savoriness. It’s fun to eat a generous helping of that stuff, but really, very little is needed to be satisfying. It tends to be expensive because of the labor that goes into making it and the small amount produced, what with the wood chopping and the long drying at low temperatures, but that doesn’t stop me from standing at the display at the corner store and feeling myself starting to drool at the vacuum-sealed package of peppered smoked trout.

There are many and varied editions of anecdotes from the lives of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, who were Christian monastics, mostly from Egypt of the very early middle ages, and some from the Russian steppes of the early modern period. (Wait, this is connected!)

51hM9lR63QL._SY344_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_BO1,204,203,200_One monk who lived out in the Egyptian countryside got a hankering for smoked fish. Smoked fish not exactly growing on trees in the desert, he had to walk to town to get some. He walked miles and miles with his mind preoccupied by the fabulous thought of a bite of smoked fish. (Being poor, he probably could afford no more than a bite.)

Finally, he got to the town, and suddenly realized that he had put an immense amount of time and labor toward acquiring nothing but a flavor that would be gone in minutes. “This is nucking futs,” he said to himself, or whatever early medieval Egyptian monks said to that effect. He repented of his gluttony. He turned around and walked all the way back to his home in the desert where, I imagine, in the typical monastic fashion he had bread, water, and probably nuts and dried fruits.

For over a decade, my doctor begged me to find some kind of exercise. (Wait, this is connected, too!) “Do what you enjoy doing,” he said. “Maybe you could try walking. Walk five minutes in any direction whatsoever, walk back home, and you’ve got ten minutes done.” I always replied, “No. What I enjoy doing is lying on the floor in front of my computer. A rolling chair like in the movie ‘Wall-E’ would be nice, too.” I am allergic to the term “exercise,” what with its connotations of “fitness” (what, so everyone else is unfit to live?), and sweatiness and heat.

But on Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, I found myself in a hotel pool paddling back and forth doing laps. I suddenly realized with dismay and logic that I had found the famous “form of physical activity I like,” something I was so prepared to do voluntarily that I had packed my swimsuit in anticipation. So after six weeks of trying to ignore this grim fact, I joined a gym with a pool. I had a suitable gym bag, an extra hair dryer, some slippers.

Andis RC-2 Ionic 1875W Ceramic Hair DryerSo the first thing I did after my pleasant first swim at the gym was to go on a shopping quest, to look for a new hair dryer. The vast array online offers so many desirable qualities! Quiet, lightweight, folding, powerful, with a retractile cord, professional sturdiness, and all the cascading bounty of “ions” a girl could ever want. So much nicer than the old ones I have. I spent an hour or so putting many models into my wishlist. Such a technological upgrade!

And then, like the monk who wanted smoked fish, I suddenly said, “This is nucking futs.” I have a perfectly good hairdryer I use at home, and I had bought it as a quieter replacement to the one I keep in my until now-unused gym bag. To spend an hour selecting a third when I have two that work fine? That’s nucking futs!

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Where the heart(h) is: Staying home, spiritually

RediscoveryofManThis is difficult to post, because I know that many of you will disagree with my decision.

From childhood through college, I was a tremendous reader of books. Then in graduate school, this tapered off. Then the internet came of age as a popular phenomenon, and after discovering news and debate sites like Zero Hedge, I have hardly gone back to reading books again, despite owning a computer and someone having given me a nice Kindle. I currently read on average maybe one or two books a year, typically light reading. Not infrequently, one of those books is fiction by Cordwainer Smith, the Christian science fiction author, whose writing I find enormously comforting.

SpiritofHappinessHowever, I have a lot of religious books on my Amazon wishlist, more than I can read in a couple of decades, at the rate I am going. I have been struggling for weeks to get through “In the Spirit of Happiness” by the Monks of New Skete, and while it is definitely not a difficult book, books no longer pull me through them the way they used to. When reading, I walk into the wind.

The books from outside my religious tradition are on my wishlist mostly from idle curiosity, to see what other brands taste like — from basic shopaholism. They are not there from a true wish to deepen my religious experience. Keeping them on my Amazon wishlist is pure vanity to flatter myself with what a broad thinker I am, or plan to be, someday, when I buy those books. Right.

So here is the difficult decision that I am sure some of you will disagree with: I am going to remove from my wishlist all religious books from outside my own religious tradition.

BrotherLawrenceYes, these other books can be of value. Yes, they can be deep. I’m not covering my ears and shouting “Lalalalala.”

I am an enormous fan of “The Practice of the Presence of God” by Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection and cannot recommend it too highly. I run across sayings by various Buddhist teachers and think they must be very perceptive people to say things like that.

But in the remainder of a lifetime that is growing shorter by the minute, I have to be realistic about the time I have left. Not to be melodramatic about it, really: There is the simple saying that in every gardener’s lifetime there are only a finite number of seasons in which to grow things. And none of us has more time left today than we did yesterday.

Is there really enough time left in life to plumb the depths of that lovable, wonderful, frustrating, central book of the Bible, its prayerbook, the Psalter that teaches you many ways to speak to God? (Buy a good useful edition here that guides you through a reading of the entire book of Psalms once a week — every week, if you wish.)

ElchaninovI do not plan to retire from work before I have to, and furthermore, I know from experience that should I have a serious illness, I just won’t have the concentration to read a book. (I spent one entire hospital stay fascinated by a little cosmetic catalog, which was all my mind could handle.) For the first time in my life, I have recently taken up exercise, which my doctors have long begged me to do. And so, because of the limits to the time left in my life, I find that my own religious tradition has enough to keep me busy for the rest of my life.

Suppose someday I convert to another religion: That is the proper time to look for books from another tradition! But now, now is the time to grow within my own.

Being ascetic about asceticism

250px-Ignatius_of_Antioch_2Well, things have continued to be unpleasant in my work life. Actually, they’re getting worse. I have had to take consolation from the fact that what I’m going through is hugely easier than being an early martyr eaten by wild beasts– if slower. I shouldn’t whine. But, anyway, this blog continues to help me stay more alert to my relationship with objects.

It appears that the level of stress in my life is correlated with an increase in the size of my Amazon wish list. I hate to admit I was really surprised when I looked carefully. The number of objects on my wish list has gone up by 2.4% this month alone.

I already knew that under stress I tend to eat too much, but I wasn’t quite so clearly conscious that I also tend to WANT too much. Wow! I see now that it’s like an anxious kid reaching for her bear and blankie! Not good for a grownup!

So for today’s object, I’m going to pick something from this month’s additions to the wish list that I am choosing not to buy.

Marriage, Celibacy, and Heresy in Ancient Christianity is the first major study in English of the ‘heretic’ Jovinian and the Jovinianist controversy. David G. Hunter examines early Christian views on marriage and celibacy in the first three centuries and the development of an anti-heretical tradition…

JovinianistControversyThe early history of Christianity is really fascinating. A lot of people don’t realize that a huge amount of action took place in the first centuries after the writing of the New Testament. It is very true that those who don’t know history are condemned to repeat it, because a lot of the most fiery disputes in Christianity in the most recent four or five centuries (such as between Protestants and Catholics) are simply rematches of similarly passionate disputes from the first centuries of Christianity. Any believer who has ever had a serious religious argument with a fellow believer knows: “Let Mortal Kombat Begin!”

The Jovinian Controversy was about what level of asceticism is most appropriate for Christians. Aha! You see why it caught my interest. The “Look Inside” selection on Amazon holds my attention, and rereading it makes me see why I put the book on my wish list a couple of weeks ago. The appropriate degree of involvement with the physical world is still a hot topic in Christianity (as the story of “the Bishop of Bling” illustrates), and probably always will be. The topic enthralls me.

ApostolicFathers1But thinking about it today, I know, deep down, that I don’t have the fortitude to wade through almost 300 pages of anything, much less a tome of early Christian studies. I also don’t feel I have enough background, which is why I’m leaving both volumes of the reasonably priced Loeb Classical Library’s Apostolic Fathers on my wish list, because Jovinian was quite a bit later than people like St. Ignatius of Antioch, who studied directly under St. John the Evangelist (best known as the beloved disciple at the Last Supper). And my work situation is keeping my span of attention low.

My experience in academic publishing whispers greedily, “You should get it before it goes out of print. You just know that probably there was a print run of 1000 and it will never be reprinted. Just buy it and keep it.” But my more ascetic self says it’s a waste of space and money I don’t even have, really, to spend $47 for a book (or $30 for a used copy) that I will probably never get around to reading. And this book, if I leave it in the freecycle area of my building, is going to end up in the trash.

So, with a great deal of regret, I’m going to delete it from my wish list. The mortal combats of Jovianian’s era will have to wait for another day, perhaps another lifespan.

The flesh pots of the Amazon

Hello again! I hope you had a fine Christmas and will have an excellent 2014.

Now we have finished the feast and afterfeast of the Nativity of God in the Flesh. You have read my mentions before of the eating guidelines in my religion. So for the forty days up to Christmas, I went pescetarian, mostly ovo-lacto vegetarian. But from Christmas on, I went whole hog, so to speak, eating red meat at least twice a day. This is not normal for me; for health reasons, I usually eat poultry or fish, not red meat.

320px-Tim_RussertAnd then I remembered Tim Russert. You remember him, too, the tough, hard-nosed, yet pleasant and likable political journalist on Meet the Press for so many years. In 2008, at the age of 58, he suddenly, shockingly collapsed and died of a heart attack at work, despite doing well on a cardiac stress test only a couple of months before.

It was shortly before Russert’s sad and unexpected death that I had read the following excerpt from his 2004 book “Big Russ and Me.” It’s a love poem to meat. I can do no better than to repeat his lyricism in a paragraph I find literally mouth-watering to read.

Tim Russert Big Russ and Me 92

I have not read the book, but having read that passage so shortly before Russert’s death made it spring to mind when the news came. Obviously, this man had a taste for meat, preferably fatty, processed meat, and it was none too good for his heart. But oh, that passage sure makes it sound tasty! The flavor and feel of salty fatty meat is incomparable.

But when that passage came to mind again a few days ago, I thought, “Why do I have cookbooks about meat on my Amazon wish list? I don’t even have a kitchen!”

Obviously, it’s food porn for me — pictures and ideas just on the item page, not even owning the book, stimulating the contemplation of meat, particularly in fancy varieties I can’t even get in my neighborhood.

As with the arroz con leche I wrote about earlier, I should avoid more than very occasional intake of processed or fatty meats, no matter how pleasurable they are. And I should drop the contemplation of it from my mind.

And so, today, I am removing from my Amazon wish list all cookbooks solely about meat. I do not need to have them stimulating my gluttony. Enough that I should eat red or processed meat once a week or less; no need to actually fantasize about it.

I have been like the Israelites in the desert.

And the children of Israel said unto them, Would to God we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the flesh pots, and when we did eat bread to the full; for ye have brought us forth into this wilderness, to kill this whole assembly with hunger.

God sent them manna to eat, which, although nutritionally complete, apparently was as appetizing as those round rice cakes with the texture of styrofoam, and they complained about that, too, and eventually God sent them pre-slaughtered meat and killed the ones who ate it, specifically because of their lust for it, and not because it was meat per se.

33 And while the flesh was yet between their teeth, ere it was chewed, the wrath of the Lord was kindled against the people, and the Lord smote the people with a very great plague.

I choose to give up those books about luscious, delicious meat because there is no sense in fantasizing about it; I should simply enjoy it in the quantities I should have — say, going to a restaurant on Easter for a sirloin — instead of luxuriating in the daydream.

Charcuterie book Odd bits bookBones book

The scriptural basis for Christmas on December 25

Once in a while, most bloggers depart from the topics of their blogs. So this post has nothing to do with shopaholism. I make some claims that are not based on historical evidence. But I wanted to pass along this info, which was transmitted to me as oral lore a long time ago from I don’t remember who, because it is not well known and risks being forgotten.

I have an atheist friend who is very dear to me. He used to say to me, “You know, Jesus was really born in the spring when the shepherds are out in the hills.” “You know, Christmas was really an adaptation of the pagan feast Saturnalia.” And so on. But after I explained this to him, he stopped.

Yeah, I understand, it’s obvious that pious hymns like “In the Bleak Midwinter” that say “earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone” do not accurately reflect the likely circumstances of Christ’s birth. It has more to do with Christ’s cousin St. John the Baptist, whose mother was St. Elizabeth, the sister of Christ’s mother St. Mary the Virgin, who, tradition says, were both daughters of St. Anne and St. Joachim.

But the date of Christmas has nothing to do with the climatic circumstances of Christ’s birth. It has to do with symbolizing the meaning of two Bible passages, Luke 1:26-28 and John 3:30.

First, St. Luke writes:

In the sixth month [of Elizabeth’s pregnancy] the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.

So we know that Christ and St. John the Baptist were about six months apart in age.

Then, according to St. John the Evangelist, when St. John the Baptist and Jesus both were doing public ministry, John the Baptist said about Jesus,

He must increase, but I must decrease.

And thus, birth of John the Baptist is celebrated on June 24, around the summer solstice, when the length of the day begins to decrease.

And the birth of Jesus Christ is celebrated on December 25, around the winter solstice, when the length of the day begins to increase.

The dates of the feast days are a symbolic illustration of what John said about Jesus, that Christ’s ministry was rising just as John was about to get in trouble and be executed.

It’s sort of like the birthday of Queen Elizabeth, whose real date of birth is April 21, but whose official birthday is celebrated in June when the weather is likely to be good in the United Kingdom. (But that is not symbolic, it’s for convenience.)

Celebrations of the solstices go very far back in human history, long before the Romans who ruled the area that gave rise to Christianity. So one could perhaps claim that Christians were trying to appropriate these days for themselves. But the scriptural reason Christians observe the births of Christ and the Baptizer at the solstices is because of these two scriptural passages.

In short, John and Jesus were about six months apart in age, and their feastdays are on the solstices as a symbolic illustration of what John said about their ministries’ growth and decline. And this is based on Bible verses from the New Testament.

Christ’s money

As you probably have noticed, the header on my blog shows three magi (mages, Wise Men) happily hustling along with their gifts for the young Christ, who is out of camera view to the right with his mom.

The traditional Christmas nativity scene or creche is a mashup of the story in the Gospel of Luke (the manger, the angels and the shepherds) and the story of the Wise Men in the Gospel of Matthew. The Wise Men probably showed up months or even years after the birth of Christ. That is why King Herod ordered all the boys in the region two years and younger to be slaughtered. It had to take some time for the rumors of Christ’s birth to travel across the land, for the Magi to do their astrological calculations, for them to travel to meet Herod, and then to find Jesus.

The gifts of the Wise Men are now considered quaint, if not actually incomprehensible. Gold famously was called a “barbarous relic” by the economist John Maynard Keynes, and relatively few people have seen it in the coin form that was probably given to Christ and his family. Myrrh comes in hard little brown chips a little paler than instant coffee crystals. Frankincense is small firm irregular blobs shaped like Nerds candies, but they are the tan, slightly translucent shade of boogers. Pure myrrh and frankincense aren’t self-lighting like incense sticks and cones; they are resins that need to be placed on burning charcoal to make fragrant smoke.

Lydian Lion One OunceHowever, like salt or peppercorns used as money in other times and places, all three of these gifts met the characteristics of money: Portable, divisible, durable, fungible, and a store of value. These substances are completely useless to a child — but extremely useful in funding the care of a child. Indeed, some have speculated that the gifts of the Magi were used to support the family during their years in Egypt. So what the mages were giving was money.

God is spirit, as St. John writes, but he also was a little kid. It’s dreadfully expensive to raise a child, even when there are no iPads to buy them, because the poorer you are, the higher the proportion of income you spend on food, so that having to feed another mouth, even a young one, can be quite a blow. The wise men may have been a little strange about astrology, but they knew about money.

Unless one belongs to a church that preaches prosperity theology, one hears among people of faith a concerted attempt to make one feel guilty about one’s comfort. One cannot be a servant to both God and money, and the love of money is a root of evil, and one should not store earthly treasures. Hermit saints like Seraphim of Sarov and Mary of Egypt who lived in destitution are held up as examples.

But this kind of preaching is as unbalanced as prosperity theology. We are called to be “as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” It is irresponsible not to manage one’s money carefully when one has children. In this era of modern medicine where people grow old slowly and die even more slowly, it is irresponsible not to save up money for the time of disability that most people face in old age.

What is more productive than austerity preaching is to teach ascetic questioning, to challenge ourselves: Do I really need both television and internet? Do I really need clothes I do not wear? Do I need a new computer? Do I need a little gadget singing in my ear all the time? Do I need that bag of flour? Do I need that bar of soap? Do I need that pencil? Do I need those plain cotton underpants? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe we should go commando!

Some traditions call the Wise Men kings, although there is no scriptural evidence that they were kings, or even that there were exactly three of them. What is clear is that they were pretty wealthy. And this shows in the mosaic header I use on my blog: They are richly dressed in heavy, multicolored robes and red Phrygian caps; they carry fancy containers and not simple earthen pots; and they are depicted in a scene of luxury, a dreamy golden sky with delicious fruit hanging down from date trees. (If you have never eaten a whole date and not one of those crumbly pebbles, you have missed a real treat.)

Critically, above all, they are offering their gifts to God, the King of All, who normally doesn’t need anything, but as a baby desperately needs material support.

And, as Christ says, “Inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me” and “whoever gives one of these little ones only a cup of cold water in the name of a disciple, assuredly, I say to you, he shall by no means lose his reward.” When we look into one another’s eyes, we are seeing God in them. So in the midst of the commercialism and greed of the Christmas season, I want to affirm that in the spirit of self-questioning, the act of gift-giving, and enjoying doing so, is nothing to be ashamed of and can indeed be an expression of respect to God.

We, too, are spirit, and we, too, are flesh. We are both physical and nonphysical. As was God. So let us take an attitude neither of unrestrained materialism or unthinking renunciation, but instead follow a truer path of asceticism, which is questioning, and challenging, and taking action.

motherofgodnourisheroflife

Christ was a baby who needed milk

 

Progress report: One for one

VictoryI’m happy to report progress. This blog is helping me to relinquish my obsessions with wanting stuff. It provides repeated practice in renouncing things of many different sorts for many different reasons in many different ways. I’ve gone into a few of my older posts and said, “Oh, yeah, I used to really really want that for years… wow, I forgot.” This isn’t exactly conquest of my shopaholism, but it’s a little victory! I feel a bit freer on the inside, less bothered by spiderwebs of longing for objects. There are still tons of objects I want, but this blog is actually helping.

Now I’m trying something new. I’m going to balance buying something with getting rid of something. This feels uncomfortable. I’ve never been moderate in my management of belongings. I tend to either buy or get rid of stuff by the bag, by the box, or even more. Or I get rid of one single thing or buy one single thing, but not at the same time. Moderation and balance are a whole new ballgame. Or, to use the metaphor from early in this blog, this time I’m simultaneously letting out some hoarded water from the bathtub and letting some fresh new water in.

This plan is a little dicey, because I am buying a bible. I’ve written before about my fascination with bibles of various form factors, especially cute little bibles. (You can click here to see that post.) So I had hoped to be rid of the urge to buy more bibles. I don’t want to fall into a spell of enthusiasm and buy a boatload of various translations, or a parallel-text French-English bible, or that cute chunky edition…

However, as I told you, I read the Bible a lot online, on BibleGateway.com. Recently, the New International Reader’s Version caught my attention. (Click here to see a couple of verses in the NIRV compared to other translations.) And when I want to explore a translation, I want a physical book to flip through and page through.

NIrV with polka dotsI wrote half a blog post explaining how I chose not to buy this translation. I made fun of my wanting the jolly teal polka-dotted edition, and I tsk-tsked at the unscholarly simplified language in the NIRV (which is much easier than the translations I normally read, such as the NRSV). And I quoted myself: “God is not a genie to be captured in a bottle, and bibles are not toys.” That last is true, but I could not sincerely finish writing the post, because the more I wrote, the more I realized I do not want this bible out of shopaholism. I really do want to explore this translation.

Writing this blog is teaching me, slowly, how to distinguish the emotional sensations of shopaholism and hoarding. It is not easy, but it is becoming less difficult for me to tell when I actually want something for itself and when there are reasons not to get it.

I am beginning to sense that when I want to buy something in the right way, I feel a more level-headed, calmer, clear-cut set of interrogations compared to when I am longing for something. Do I really have the space? Do I really have the money? Will I have the time and commitment to respect this object and respect myself by using it, and using it well? Will I lay it aside because it turns into junk in my hands and I get bored with it? Is it worth devoting some of the minimal space in my tiny home to it? Will I have the willpower to give it away if it disappoints, even though I paid good money for it?

So this time I thought about it, and eureka! Why don’t I get rid of one of my least-read bibles? One for one at the same time! I know that those of you who don’t have hoarding and shopaholism problems are probably rolling your eyes at this big “discovery,” but it was a discovery for me!

My building has a tacitly agreed-upon freecycling space where we put small items we don’t want; anyone who wants can take them and after a couple of days, the building manager throws out anything left. This is the flat top of an unused radiator cover in the foyer — no clothes, very good for books, vases, bottles of perfume, and the like. It always looks neat, because if something is good quality, it gets picked up very quickly.

I put my telephone-book-sized six-pound Large Print NIV Archaeological Bible out there with a sticky saying “Great Christmas present!” I peeked a few hours later and it was gone. I felt relief. I should have gotten rid of that enormous bible long ago, because after I read a few pages I lost interest in it right away. (“But it was so expensive, and maybe I’ll make the time to study it, and I should learn what’s in it… and…”) It was even in its original box.

So, jubilantly, I ordered the (much smaller) NIRV, because even though my place is overstuffed with possessions, I was able to keep the situation from getting worse. Not exactly ascetic behavior, but self-disciplined.

One for one: A useful concept.

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