Archive | October, 2012

A Wendell Berry Kind of Day

27 Oct

Eiteljorg antelope in ironic frolic against the big blue sky of … the Marriott.

I sally forth into a cool and drizzly Indianapolis, determined as usual to get past the antiseptic convention rooms and campus auditoriums of the academic conference – to connect in some superficial way with the city itself. But even that effort to delve deeper into Indianapolis points me to something bigger than Indianapolis. I wind up at the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, filled with the art and crafts of the American West. Hours later, I return to my 11th floor hotel room with my head full of the vastness of the American West, the experiences I had earlier this year on the rolling wide open country of a South Dakota Indian reservation, the way Willa Cather described her protagonist in O Pioneers as taking comfort in the small place of humans amid the “vast operations of the universe.”

Striving to make the room’s writing desk my own, I try describing the view: “Lucas Oil Stadium to my left, the hotel dead ahead, the glassy curved blue 1000-something-room JW Marriott on my right, and in the middle the mysterious factory billowing steam and who knows what else into the atmosphere, has a chute as if it might’ve been a coal plant, who knows …” For obvious reasons, this effort ran out of steam; instead my eyes glided back toward the flat-screen TV, which I had set on something called the RELAX Channel – ironically, it screams its name in all caps, as if to say, “RELAX NOW, DAMN IT!” It’s a rotating series of images of Yosemite National Park in California: Granite domes and water falls and ponds reflecting peaks and sky and tree lines, courtesy of director Sterling Johnson.

How odd it is, all this mediation of the “here and now” with the “there and been”, and how each enriches the other. My May among the impoverished Sioux in South Dakota flows into my July visit to a Santa Barbara Chumash exhibit into my October visit to the Eiteljorg into this hotel cable service and its renderings of Yosemite. Sitting between the televised pictures of Yosemite and the real-time city panorama of Indianapolis, I write that this whole meditation is “even more ironic than I’m aware of. And now a long-haired, perhaps Native American, perhaps not, plays some kind of flute with the mountains in background, reminding me of the Wendell Berry comment about how the tiny figures in Chinese landscape paintings are a more accurate depiction of our place in creation” than scenes devoid of humans. It seemed impossible, I noted, to be in one place at a time; everything connects to something else, every one to someone else. As I rose from my laptop to put on my conference shirt and tie, I couldn’t decide whether this was a good or bad thing.

As it turned out, I was right about one thing – there was more irony, and more connections, awaiting me on this day. But even so, I wasn’t quite prepared for how powerfully my private pre-conference morning would unfold into my professional appearance at the University of Indianapolis, host of a Lilly Fellowship Conference called “Incorporating Service: The Body At Work.”

It was going to be a Wendell Berry kind of day.

Within my first two hours, I sat next to a fellow Southerner about a decade older than me, a remarkably open gentleman with whom I slipped easily into probing conversation about the painful paradox of Christianity and racism back during the Civil Rights Movement. He volunteered that he didn’t confront his own racism head-on until seminary, and that even now he has to root out vestiges of that upbringing. This somehow brought up Wendell Berry’s book The Hidden Wound, about much the same topic; when he confessed to now knowing Berry, the guy on the opposite side of him and I joined in singing the praises of the eloquent essayist and poet. Berry, after all, not only writes with powerful clarity and wide range, but argues out of deep convictions. He defends small farms and sustainable living, a prophet speaking against a vast capitalist culture that has molded us into its image in more ways than we can count.

Then, an hour later, I saw Wendell Berry.

Wendell Berry (Ed Reinke/Associated Press)

Well, I saw a photo of him on Power-Point representation – although not the one above. It was part of Jeff Bouman’s overview of the history of service at America’s religiously affiliated colleges. St. Wendell, as a friend of mine used to call him, seemed older but robust. His picture was accompanied by the phrase “It All Turns on Affection,” The phrase was the title of the talk he gave at the invitation of the National Endowment of the Humanities, which honors one scholar a year with the opportunity to give the Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities lecture in Washington D.C.

Later I will read Berry’s entire lecture on-line and discover the basis of the title, a seemingly odd one for a lecture so preoccupied with agricultural economy.

Berry puts it this way:

“The term ‘imagination’ in what I take to be its truest sense refers to a mental faculty that some people have used and thought about with the utmost seriousness. The sense of the verb ‘to imagine’ contains the full richness of the verb ‘to see.’ To imagine is to see most clearly, familiarly, and understandingly with the eyes, but also to see inwardly, with ‘the mind’s eye.’ It is to see, not passively, but with a force of vision and even with visionary force. To take it seriously we must give up at once any notion that imagination is disconnected from reality or truth or knowledge. It has nothing to do either with clever imitation of appearances or with ‘dreaming up.’ It does not depend upon one’s attitude or point of view, but grasps securely the qualities of things seen or envisioned.

“I will say, from my own belief and experience, that imagination thrives on contact, on tangible connection. For humans to have a responsible relationship to the world, they must imagine their places in it. To have a place, to live and belong in a place, to live from a place without destroying it, we must imagine it. By imagination we see it illuminated by its own unique character and by our love for it. By imagination we recognize with sympathy the fellow members, human and nonhuman, with whom we share our place. By that local experience we see the need to grant a sort of preemptive sympathy to all the fellow members, the neighbors, with whom we share the world. As imagination enables sympathy, sympathy enables affection. And it is in affection that we find the possibility of a neighborly, kind, and conserving economy.”

Brilliantly reasoned, with its intelligence as emotional as it is intellectual. I reminded me of the poster I bought when I moved to Massachusetts to start my new life as a teacher at Assumption College – one proclaiming, “If we fail now, it will be a failure of the imagination.” Which, of course, informs both the manner in which we serve others – do we imagine what the situation looks like from their perspective before we impose our answers onto them – but whether we bother to serve at all. As usual, Berry says it better: “The word ‘affection’ and the terms of value that cluster around it—love, care, sympathy, mercy, forbearance, respect, reverence—have histories and meanings that raise the issue of worth. We should, as our culture has warned us over and over again, give our affection to things that are true, just, and beautiful. When we give affection to things that are destructive, we are wrong.” (This strikes me as particularly instructive when it comes time to vote.)

Berry observes that this sympathetic imagination is sometimes hard to achieve, and for understandable functional reasons. “It is a horrible fact that we can read in the daily paper, without interrupting our breakfast, numerical reckonings of death and destruction that ought to break our hearts or scare us out of our wits. This brings us to an entirely practical question:  Can we—and, if we can, how can we—make actual in our minds the sometimes urgent things we say we know?” But, as he concludes, “We don’t have to live as if we’re alone.”

Even though presenter Jeff Bouman didn’t quote all of the above in his talk, I can see its truth in the story I lived out in Indianapolis. The irony-filled spiritual interplay of imagination and affection unfolded through the rest of my day in Indianapolis: Jeff Bouman’s talk, a dinner theater one-act play, and an extraordinary number of spiritual and intellectual conversations.

Some of those encounters hit me where I lived – or, at least, where I should be living. I started to get to the latter place that evening, when the conference introduced me to Taize-styled vespers – a service that emphasized silent meditation punctuated by occasional readings and repeated sung phrases, climaxed by us passing of the flame from one candle to another, until we were all meditating over our individual fire. Each person left as they saw fit, so the service did not so much end as fade – and I surprised myself by being one of the last to leave. Instead, I sat and soaked in the cumulative effect of the day, reveling in St. Wendell and the American West and the power of imaginative affection in the face of the vastness.

Antelope outside Eiteljorg Museum.

On Sam Wells and the Importance of Prepositions

23 Oct

Sam Wells: vicar, author, preacher. 

Standing before an almost packed auditorium at the University of Indianapolis last Saturday, Sam Wells asked us to journey halfway around the globe, to the Saharan desert where, in Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, Lazlo faces a seemingly possible choice – staying with his injured lover until she dies or hike three days to Cairo in search of help.

Wells, a social activist Anglican vicar and author, let Lazlo’s difficult choice linger over his audience, gathered for “Incorporating Service: The Body at Work,” the 22nd annual national conference for the Lilly Fellows Program in Humanities and the Arts. Thanks to the Lilly Fellows’ emphasis on encouraging a place for Christian themes in otherwise secular academic disciplines, the audience ranged from grad students and professors to provosts and chaplains. “Yesterday we heard a talk,” a fellow participant told me over breakfast, referring to a superb conference-opening historical overview of American collegiate service by Calvin College’s Jeff Bouman. “This morning we’re going to hear a sermon.”

My breakfast companion was absolutely correct. Wells’ talk took us to the depths of two profoundly personal reasons why we do service – and why one is both more satisfying and harder than the other. Wells’ irresistible logic and eloquence was complemented by his English accent and a vaguely Colin Firth-ish appearance, and while he dared singing with comic badness to illustrate his points, the heart of his talk lay in three simple hypothetical situations.

Wells asked us to imagine (1) buying a Christmas gift for the “most difficult” person in our family, (2) hosting the extended family for Thanksgiving, and (3) hustling to drop off meals and gifts for the poor during the holidays. One thing all three have in common is disappointment: The gift falls short and doesn’t fix the relationship, the dinner exhausts the host who is too busy pleasing people to enjoy their company, and the gifts and meals feels impersonal and unsatisfying.

The other thing they have in common, Wells pointed out, is the preposition “for.” Being a vicar, of course, Wells approves of doing things for others. But ultimately Wells argued for service built around a different preposition: “with.” The emptiness in all three situations stems from the failure to be with the difficult family member, with the guests, to be with the poor. So why do we choose instead to settle for only doing things for others? His answer: “For” is often easier. Building relationships is more challenging, both in terms of time and in terms of energy. Just as it’s easier for organizations to do things for this or that group than consulting with said group to find out what’s truly needed. So to Wells, this distinction has implications not only for our personal, individual acts of service, but also for how organizations address the needs of larger groups.

As if this was not enough to chew on, Wells frames all of this in terms of a larger existential question – or, rather, two questions. Is the central question of human existence to throw off the limitations of mortality, or is the central question of the human predicament instead isolation? If you say it’s mortality, your service is likely  to join a solution-oriented culture in which we want the less fortunate to have the same opportunities to throw off limitations – and you’re likely to throw yourself into acquiring skills that help solve those problems for others. If, on the other hand, the big question is isolation, you have to accept the considerably more challenging duty of being with people, facing problems that may have no easy solution which you can then congratulate yourself for helping solve. He argued that the gospel – from Jesus being sent to be with us to the Trinity as the “embodiment of with” – is ultimately centered on the latter.

Vespers altar at U. Indy chapel.

Besides, he suggested, we still haven’t exactly licked mortality. As he put it with  deliciously dry humor, “As eternity is rather extensive, anything short of that is going to seem inadequate.” And while Wells acknowledges that we should still do things for people, letting that become the dominant mode of our service can create an isolation that turns our earthly lives into a “kind of hell.”

Afterward, I would thank Wells in the lobby for deepening the “for-with” distinction I had explored in an earlier blog about Rev. Murray Branch, the pastor at Dexter Avenue-King Memorial Church in Montgomery, Alabama. He warned our fledgling Habitat for Humanity affiliate that we shouldn’t say we’re building houses for people, but with them – affirming the dignity of all in a spirit of partnership. Wells agreed: As it turned out, he actually named Habitat as a model of “with” service in a Living Without Enemies: Being Present in the Midst of Violence, a book he co-authored with Marcia A. Owen.

As for the fictional Lazlo,he of course acts out of the mortality model, as Wells noted in his conclusion. Lazlo abandons his lover to face the prospect of death alone, only to return to find her dead. He then tries to fly her body back to Cairo, only to crash and injure himself – after which, Wells notes, he is lucky enough to find a nurse who is willing to do what he failed to do, face death with him.


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