living through death

"The only way that you can accept life is if you can accept death.” –Leo Buscaglia

Adventure Become Prayer: Hiking Iceland’s Fimmvörðuháls Trail

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When life is made superficial by an awareness dominated by the routine goals and desires of everyday life, adventure can be an opening to the depth of life, and therefore to the experience of salvation. That, in short, was the basic argument of the paper I presented at the Paul Tillich: Theology and Legacy conference last week in Oxford.

Upon wrapping up the conference, I then proceeded to take a late flight to Iceland where I drove southeast, finally coming to rest under the arctic twilight at 3:00 a.m. beneath Seljalandsfoss, a breathtaking cascade of glacial meltwater. After 3 hours of sleep, I hitchhiked with a former F-16 pilot from Oman to Skogafoss where the Fimmvörðuháls Trail begins. Over the next 19 miles I would climb and descend 3,280 feet; pass endless stunning waterfalls; cross a glacier; walk directly over Móði, one of the two eruption craters from the 2010 Eyjafjallajokull volcano; and be endlessly stunned by the otherworldly beauty of the weathered volcanic remains of Þórsmörk. (For those curious, you can view the complete photo set of this hike here).

Water through Lava

The Fallacy of Self-Exemption

All the while I kept thinking about the words I had said at the conference. I had claimed both that adventure has the potential to deepen life, but also that anything in life—even adventure—can lose its depth and become superficial, ordinary, routine, “been there, done that.” When the latter frame of mind dominates our awareness our adventures become consumerism. We show up to our adventures looking to grab as many thrills for the least amount of effort so we can put them on like a suit and go home proving to our friends and family (and probably to ourselves) that we are authentic, daring, really alive. In this way, adventure is drug up from the depths and made to be merely superficial, a rather obvious form of pretension.

As I hiked along with my GoPro snapped to my pack and my giant DSLR bouncing conspicuously against my chest, I couldn’t help but feel the extent to which I was by no means innocent of my own critique. I noticed myself momentarily awestruck by some new feature the land presented me with: a waterfall, a flower, clouds forming all around me as the moist ocean wind cooled on its ascent… but then, just as quickly, I would anxiously reach for my camera. In that moment I had become a consumer. My anxiety about capturing the moment and my despondency upon missing it was evidence that I was trying to turn that unique gift into my own property. To the extent I lived in this frame of mind, my adventure had become superficial… an extension of merely everyday life.

In the Icelandic Highlands

Some Help from Walter Mitty

On the plane home I watched, for the second time, the slightly corny movie The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, which, in spite of its campy style, remains one of my favorite movies of recent years. There is a moment where Sean Penn’s character, “Sean O’Connell” who plays an old-school photo journalist, is in the midst of almost capturing a photo of a rare snow leopard high in the Afghan Himalayas. As the ghost cat emerges from the rocks, Sean sighs with pleasure. He motions to Walter to have a look, but then he just sits there, gazing at the animal far across the mountain range. Walter is beside himself. “When are you going to take it?”, he asks. Sean replies, “Sometimes I don’t. If I like a moment, for me, personally, I don’t like to have the distraction of the camera. I just want to stay in it.”

In that brief statement O’Connell captures the experience I was wrestling with on the Fimmvörðuháls. There’s no anxiety when you’re able to “stay in it.” You don’t need to worry about consuming the moment, or deciding how to pin it to your chest as a badge of your authenticity. That’s what makes Sean’s character so appealing: the absence of an anxious ego born of a deeper security. In the terms of my paper, such is the experience of salvation.

Adventure Become Prayer

A major point of my paper was that salvation, as it appears through adventure, has the potential to enlarge our capacity to endure the unknown and the unknowable. And this was the other realization I had as I trekked over the Icelandic highlands: If one is able to let the consumerist mindset fall away, adventure becomes prayer. Each step, each breath, takes on the form of attentive expectation. One’s eyes begin scanning the horizon, even the ground beneath one’s feet, for the unfolding gift of life’s ongoing newness. As one settles into this sort of prayerful movement, absolutely nothing is “been there, done that.” All things are new, unexpected. One walks in gratitude. Photos become opportunities to share this joy with loved ones back home, rather than opportunities to prop up one’s ego.

Waterfall on the Skoga

Keeping Adventure Alive in the Everyday

In the end, my Icelandic adventure largely confirmed the intuitions I had when writing my paper, but what impressed me was how easy it was for my adventuring to fall off into the superficial. Much like the wandering mind during prayer, my everyday awareness was constantly reasserting itself even after being repeatedly knocked back by the wonders of my hike. Considering how difficult it was for me to shake this habit (It is most certainly still with me, even as I write this), I don’t suppose it would be too surprising for one to adventure for weeks on end without hardly denting their superficial frame of mind. I suppose for this reason, I may need to think more on how to further qualify this argument that I am still rather keen to make.

All the same, with the help of my wife, and other close family members, I’ve been away 10 days. I’m just now working to get back into the rhythms of my everyday life. It’s been delightful to notice how, like any adventure turned to prayer, the everyday life one returns to will never be the same. I am filled with a new enthusiasm for keeping my mind tuned to notice when merely everyday life threatens to deaden me to the adventure that lies always right beneath my nose, in the throbbing center of every moment we live… each shared glance… every waking child… a breath, a touch, a sigh.

Þórsmörk

Written by Alex

July 21, 2014 at 11:19 am

Summer’s Disappearing Act

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Adrian's Last Walk to Second Grade

The last walk to school with Adrian and our neighbor friends has come and gone. Summer is here, which for me means that my son, Adrian, is here. As any grad student with kids knows, trying to find a way to be both a good academic and a good parent, even amidst ideal circumstances, more often than not feels like an exercise in impossibility. Toss in the imposing demands of comprehensive examination preparation (which I will be sitting for in August) and it’s enough to stimulate a panic attack. For that reason, my friends, I’m going to have to check out for a few months.

During that time I’ll be flying off to England and Iceland to present my paper on Paul Tillich, salvation and adventure in July (which I’ve got nearly wrapped up.) The Iceland portion of that trip has now simply become an attempt to make good on all the adventure talk I’ll be spouting off about in my paper. I’m trying to convince my old friend Jon to join me. There may be a motorcycle involved. We’ll see. I hope to have my paper on prayer finished before I leave.  And after all that, Megan, the family, and I will be heading out West to parts unknown for a family road trip of some kind. I look forward to getting back into the swing of things on the other side, as I’ve found the practice of blogging to be good for me on a number of levels.

I’ve got a couple posts that are still in the works, one of which is an appraisal of Dan Gilbert’s studies on happiness. Looking forward to sharing those with you when I come back up for air!

Best wishes on your own summer plans, whatever it is they may be!

Written by Alex

June 10, 2014 at 10:10 am

Posted in Life

Bird with Variety

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The return of life to the recently frozen landscape has been slow in coming. Just these last few days the song birds have started reappearing. We saw the first Gold Finches on Saturday, then the Orioles, and finally today we were awoken by the sound of a Mockingbird. May it gladden your day as it did ours!

Written by Alex

May 12, 2014 at 10:16 am

Posted in Life

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Reflections on Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation: Chapter 3, “Seeds of Contemplation”

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If the elemental question, “Who am I?”, is one that resonates with you, this chapter is a gold mine. Here Merton begins to unfold the heart of, not only this particular book, but his life-long intellectual and spiritual obsession: the contrast between authentic and inauthentic human being, what he often calls the “false self” and the “true self.”

The Truth of Self and God via the Death of Self and the Gods

In talking about the self, Merton is talking about God. His God is framed by his quest for identity, and his quest for identity is framed by God. What is especially interesting is the way he connects these terms. It is often heard that we will find our true identity in God, but Merton recognizes that this is dangerous talk. How can we know that what claims to be the will of God really is God and not merely the egoism of yet another impostor, another false self?

Merton’s way of addressing this begins with the idea that God is a reality that we are both separated from and inescapably united with. In the same way our true self is a reality with which we are both separated and inescapably united. When we live out our lives in the realm of our false self we live under the dominion of false gods, false powers that make false promises and false demands. “Live here and you will be happy and safe.” “Work here and you will be respected.” “Make enough money, then you will know freedom.” When, however, we are reunited with our true self we simultaneously live out of the truth of ourself as well as God. Merton here calls this “a union of deep wills” in contrast to the superficial separation of our routine life. Merton’s trope of choice to describe the transition from this state of estrangement to reunion is “death.”

We must learn to realize that the love of God seeks us in every situation, and seeks our good. His incurable love seeks our awakening. True, since this awakening implies a kind of death to our exterior self, we will dread His coming in proportion as we are identified with this exterior self and attached to it. But when we understand the dialectic of life and death we will learn to take the risks implied by faith, to make the choices that deliver us from the routine self and open to us the door of a new being, a new reality (15-16).

The Contrary is Not the Truth

This talk of our “exterior self,” “routine self,” and “false self” that must be died to, however, easily misleads us. It conjures up the idea that the only true way of being is somehow removing ourselves from the limits of spatio-temporally determined being and flouting all routine. This is not likely what Merton meant given the fact that when he wrote these words he was living as a Trappist monk—a life of routine if there ever was one—which included the vow of stability that committed him to living out the rest of his life at the Abbey of Gethsemani.

Merton evidently thought that living a life constituted by an intensification of routine and external limitations had something to do with connecting with his true identity, with God. He was convinced that the truth of both God and ourselves can only be received in freedom, spontaneity, and love. It is a tantalizing paradox, then, that to connect with this truth he committed himself to what looks like the very opposite of these qualities: obligation, routine, and isolation.

Blondeau_Pepper

Salvific Death by Normalizing the Abnormal

The genius of monastic life is the way it both recognizes that conventional life is founded upon the determined quest for freedom, spontaneity and love, and upon recognizing this, it systematically frustrates this quest. But why? Outside the monastery we are living every moment of our lives trying to attain these qualities. We are working hard. We are praying. And yet each moment we think that we have grasped satisfaction, it fades away. We are left unhappy, frustrated, tired, empty. What the monastic life does is remove the illusion that we will ever attain true satisfaction via our attempts to possess true satisfaction. The monastic life is arranged from the inside out to render the very quest impossible.*

Does it seem depressing to you? Your days of being off on a whim to travel the world are forever over. Your clothes are the same every day… and the same as what everyone around you wears. The routine is unrelenting. Do you see why the idea of “death” comes naturally to mind in describing this way to the truth of self and God? Listen now to his words:

The mind that is the prisoner of conventional ideas, and the will that is the captive of its own desire cannot accept the seeds of an unfamiliar truth and a supernatural desire. For how can I receive the seeds of freedom if I am in love with slavery and how can I cherish the desire of God if I am filled with another and an opposite desire?… I must learn therefore to let go of the familiar and the usual and consent to what is new and unknown to me. I must learn to ‘leave myself’ in order to find myself by yielding to the love of God. If I were looking for God, every event and every moment would sow, in my will, grains of His life that would spring up one day in a tremendous harvest (16).

Can you begin to hear what he is after? The answer to the question “who am I?”, the answer to the question “Who is God?”, is received in every moment as new life. It is unknown to us. It is like the joy of an unexpected present that doesn’t fade upon opening it, for we never stop opening it. Our sin is that we grab at it; we strive to make it known, make it ours to control, a possession. The gift of our life becomes like a small holiday bonus put toward paying off already incurred credit card debts.

The Dead and the Living

It’s a strange thing that the dead should be most fully alive. But Merton and those few like him certainly give that impression. It makes a certain kind of sense, for who is the most free to be spontaneously present to the moment in love but the one who has nothing to lose by being there.

May we be open the the courage that sheds all these false-securities and so awakens us to the gift that is ourself, fully present in the center of God’s love.

Click here for more in this series of reflections.

*As an aside, that monasticism cultivates detachment by means of ascetic practices might well be simply an accident of history. In a culture dominated by ascetic practices it might be imagined that salvific detachment might better come via a hedonistic practices that risk tarnishing the carefully crafted ascetic image. If the reigning metaphor was death, salvation would come by way of life. The point is that neither asceticism nor hedonism are ends in themselves; rather, each of them, under the right circumstances, might serve to open one to the ever abundant love in which we live.

Written by Alex

April 23, 2014 at 11:07 am

In Process: “Paul Tillich, Salvation, and Big, Unnecessary, Crazy, Travel Adventure”

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Tillich ConferenceThis past year I’ve dabbled a bit on the relationship between adventure and salvation (here and here), but I have now been given the opportunity to do a more focused treatment of these ideas. I was recently informed that a proposal I submitted to a conference in Oxford, England called, Paul Tillich: Theology and Legacy has been accepted. I had basically written off the possibility of going due to the expense, but at the last minute I decided to toss together a few of these crazy ideas and see what happened. Below is the proposal I submitted. I’ll be flying over in July to present the paper which I am currently working on. I’ll be sure to post the full paper once it’s finished. Stay tuned.

Paul Tillich, Salvation, and Big, Unnecessary, Crazy, Travel Adventure

Paul Tillich emphasized that salvation has a paradoxical form. Among a growing community of people, the cultural quest for salvation has recently taken just such a turn. Rather than keeping the evils of death and meaninglessness at bay via the comfortable promises of a technologically manipulated environment, some have taken it upon themselves to, instead, quit their jobs and embark upon incredible journeys in some of the harshest environments of the planet. They thrive on rather minimal preparation, entrust themselves to the kindness of strangers, and frequently change their plans. From bicycling 30,000 miles home, across Siberia—in winter, as Rob Lilwall did, to more humble “micro-adventures” as Alastair Humphreys encourages, these adventurers have at least one thing in common: They encounter an intensity of life that the normal mode of technologically-dependent life systematically subverts.

What I hope to argue is that this movement points to the experience of salvation in our time. Tillich’s thinking on salvation was often framed by the ideas of what he called structure and depth. These were the terms he was thinking in when he described culture as the form of religion and religion as the depth of culture. The basic problem that he identified is that religion has been artificially separated from culture and that culture is then ever in danger of losing its depth. Thus, if salvation is the dynamic encounter of the depth of being within the structure, and if the structure has lost its grammar of depth, then it is understandable that people will go looking for depth elsewhere. And we might expect that they will do so precisely by spurning empty cultural forms. I hope to show that these individuals represent a theologically interesting enactment of the fragmentary overcoming of estrangement in our time.

 

Written by Alex

April 17, 2014 at 11:14 am

Reflections on “Reclaiming the Gospel of Peace”

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Are there any among us who still wonder if we live in a world gone mad? Or have we become so numb to the almost boring regularity of various killings in our nation and around the world that the question fails to register? Last week I attended a national conference held by the Episcopal Church that sought to spark a discussion on this issue. It was host to a surprising (to me) diversity of opinion, including that of Dr. Edward J. Konieczny, the Bishop of the diocese of Oklahoma, a former vice cop who, even now, posses a permit to carry a concealed weapon. Konieczny was a poignant embodiment of a tension that runs through the center of our nation, and the location of the conference, Oklahoma City was also steeped in powerful symbolism.

Teddy bear on the memorial wall at the site of the Oklahoma City Bombing.

The photo above is of a teddy bear placed on the memorial wall at the site of the 1995 Oklahoma City Bombing. Our visit to the memorial was a visceral reminder to me of what is at stake when the church presumes to speak of salvation. Below I have reposted a brief reflection that I was asked to share with the diocese of Minnesota on the experience. I would like to thank Bishop Brian Prior and Missioner, Rolf Lowenberg-DeBoer for graciously inviting me along.

For a conference devoted to fostering a conversation on the topic of gun violence, what struck me most was a tendency to conceive of gun violence as the symptom of a deeper and more universal disease. In his address, the Archbishop of Canterbury was quick to point this out when he declared that any response to violence needs to be rooted in an adequate anthropology. This is a point that, to my mind, our faith communities are especially well suited to address.

Gun violence is a drastic act born of a radical insecurity. Our tradition is filled with imagery depicting a wonderful variety of ways that we are, all of us, estranged, separated, insecure. It was not always this way, say the scriptures. We began our lives in Eden, secure in the immediate presence of life-itself, of God. As we each emerged into our separate identities, we fell away from the immediate presence of God, and we all, to various degrees, learned what it meant to be on our own, separate, insecure, violent. Yet, at the heart of the gospel there is the image of one in whom the immediate presence of the Father was experienced beyond Eden. It was in this security that Jesus chose to undergo the violence born of human insecurity, and it is this security that we are invited to participate in and to live out.

What I heard in so many ways at this conference was that the Christian response to violence is to be found in the security of this unfathomable love. May we yearn to have the courage to receive it.

Written by Alex

April 16, 2014 at 10:25 am

The Correlation of Skepticism and Dogmatism

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I’ve been thinking about something a colleague of mine, Bryne Helen Lewis, said in the comments section of a post I wrote awhile back concerning the “Creation Debate.” Her words were as follows: “Ham’s mix of classical skepticism and dogmatic supernaturalism is logically embarrassing and is in no way excused by any larger vision to which he lays claim.”

As an aside, I should make clear that I was not suggesting that Ham’s “larger vision” offered him any excuse; rather, the point was that his larger vision offered more motivational depth for those who are gripped by it than the pragmatic/utilitarian reasons that Nye was offering.

At any rate, I just stumbled across a quote that I thought put the matter well and captures each of our concerns well.

Skepticism is very often the basis for a doctrine of Revelation. Those people who emphasize revelation in the most absurd supernaturalistic terms are those who enjoy being skeptical about everything. Skepticism and dogmatism about revelation are correlated. –Paul Tillich A History of Christian Thought108.

In context, Tillich is addressing Augustine’s fall from Manicheanism into skepticism, and eventually, to a fairly heavy reliance on revelation as concretely given by the church. I’ll make no further comment on the complex makeup of Augustine’s thought here, but I felt the point was worth emphasizing again.

An anxious soul longs for a solid answer by which to live. In the deep hope that such an answer has been unambiguously given, it is understandable that everything else in the world can be doubted. I’d never really thought of it in such terms until now. Thanks, Bryne, for giving me something to chew on.

Written by Alex

March 21, 2014 at 3:51 pm

Posted in Theology

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