A Sojourn Among Jesuits

A Journey with Jesuits

I live near a highway. I have been watching the ebb and flow of traffic while struggling to put into words my experience of the past months. Traffic, for all its technology and pollution, mirrors the natural progression of seasons here in the small tourist community where I live. The arrival of a carnival or vacationers over a holiday weekend affects us, disrupting the sleepy norm, leaving the town rattled, transformed and richer when the tourist tide recedes. My life was once like this.

Like any person with a lively intellect, my worldview is informed both by everyday events and the broader perspective on culture afforded by an internet connection. The tide rises and the news is absorbed, disrupting my sleepy norm. But lately, this tide has left me rattled and transformed but no richer.

The struggle for civilization is, like the struggle for self-actualization, an effort to tame the animal within. In this, our society increasingly resembles a zoo with its cages left open. The rush to assign blame for this state of affairs leads us into a wilderness of pointing fingers. Discussion of political differences, always passionate, has transformed into an ugly debate appropriating moral language. In an environment where political differences are shaded with religious overtones of good and evil, I felt the need to withdraw and reconsider some fundamental questions. And so on July 1st I undertook a thirty-one day period of spiritual reflection.

The 31 Days of St. Ignatius is a month-long course of prayer and contemplation during which participants are invited to consider a series of topics related to the Gospel and Jesuit spirituality. Classes are provided online and supplemented with additional material by e-mail. There was also an online forum and priestly counsel made available. Also, my ex-wife and neighbor Becky was also taking the course and she provided hours of lively conversation and reflection. I have always appreciated the intellectual symmetry of Jesuitical thought, taking solace in their scholarship and commentaries, their disciplined approach to faith and later, through personal acquaintance with Daniel Berrigan and John Dear, their activism. The Jesuits always seem able to strike a meaningful balance between engagement with the inner and outer worlds. With this goal in mind, I undertook the discipline. It proved a rigorous journey of self-examination, prayerful reflection and discussion.

I distilled many of my thoughts into journal form, offered for any lost in that wilderness of pointing fingers, perhaps overwhelmed by those beasts prowling once-civilized precincts.

REFLECTION ON EVIL

One of the most pervasive and commonplace evils of our time is the ease with which we attribute evil to others. Extreme demonstrations of human evil, driven by forces as disparate as greed, nationalism, egotism, ideological fervor should prompt a passionate response. But when we mistake passion for the response – where we are too swift to alarm, we will be swift to ascribe evil to others and dehumanize them. Much of the extremism I have experienced within myself occurred when I demonized those with whom I disagreed while remaining reluctant to examine my own ideological and activist excesses. The violent arguments convulsing society are informed at least partially by this truth: you cannot confront the evil in the world effectively until you confront the evil within oneself. My own failure to do so has invariably led to a lack of reflection and humility. With much cultural commentary larded with blame, there is very little left over to encourage self-reflection about personal shortcomings. Sadly, established religion often serves to cloud the waters and muddle discourse. Those who invoke religion as cover for inexcusable and inhumane policies would do well to consult their faith’s scriptures and look within. Some others of us might do well to check our righteous anger while also checking our privilege. Acknowledging one’s own flaws brings humility. Reflexively attributing evil to others can be a way to avoid that acknowledgement.

REFLECTION ON TRUTH

An honest examination of truth leads to an awareness that the truth can wound people. Indeed, it can kill. This might explain the human reluctance to face truth and a demonstrated preference to traffic in its direct opposite. Of course, we all know the sensation of being asked for our honest opinion when we know that obliging will inflict injury. We avoid speaking the truth to spare others pain. Perhaps this explains the visible absence of the Divine in our lives. To those who cry, “Where is God?” the answer: Be careful what you ask for. We can get a scale of the potential discomfort when we apply the standards of truth we have for others to ourselves. Try it sometime. Hold yourself to the same standard of truth and fairness to which you hold someone you don’t particularly like and see how you stack up. We not only spare others the truth – we often spare ourselves. This is an act of charity because to learn too much about ourselves too quickly can be a shattering experience. To be in the presence of God is to be exposed to the absolute truth about ourselves. His absence is an act of charity. Because being in the presence of absolute truth will shatter anyone.

“WHO DO YOU SAY THAT I AM?”

Labeling others, rightly or wrongly, according to their merit or dismissing people based on popular opinion or the say-so of others is common in human society. My own reluctance to embrace the traditional faith of my culture rests mostly in the evils done in its name. But working within the Jesuit tradition required me to approach the eminence of God-in-Christ, one outside my accustomed spiritual framework. I determined to try. We are enjoined to see the God within people, I told myself, so why not God as person? What began as an acceptance of Jesus as an subject of contemplation grew, given the norms of the faith, into a relationship with the idea of Christ. This proved an object lesson for me about things said about or done in others’ name. When asked if he is the King of the Jews, Christ responds: “You say that I am.” The statement refracts perfectly into the very problems of identity, culture and truth present in that moment. It also forces a distinction between the individual and what others say of him in a time and place of legal judgment. What I bring from this aspect of the retreat into my own life is a determination to spend more time sojourning and counseling with others and less time considering what is said or done in their name. I would like to think I would answer Christ’s words: “No, you tell me.” So I owe at least that much to others.

FINISHING THE JOURNEY/TELLING THE STORY

Many is the time I felt tempted to share some new thought or insight prompted by the course, but the 31 Days format discouraged it, and for this I am glad. My early thoughts were refined in contemplation and my understanding broadened as a result. This in a contrast with our culture of “hot takes” and opinion pieces crafted within an hour of a major news event. During the period of contemplation, it struck me how impoverished this new norm has left the marketplace of ideas. The pressures of a 24-hour news cycle, a global marketplace and instant global communication have combined to create a militantly non-reflective culture in which commentators do not so much think as react. The fastest to file the story owns that day’s news cycle. But how many individual mental journeys, I wondered, have been cut short by this phenomenon? My 31 Days reinforced for me the importance of contemplation and reflection. One need not necessarily unplug – just be a little quicker to reflect and slower to respond. Finish the journey before telling the story.

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CERTAIN FURY & the Birth of the Storm Rhino

5113jbvzJpL[1]Like most crazy ideas, this one started over a conversation that involved alcohol. Sean Smith and I were bemoaning the state of the union, as one does these days, but when two post-apocalyptic writers have that conversation it gets dark really  fast (remember: we do research). Scenarios ranging from foreign invasion to civil insurgency to nuclear Armageddon were tossed back and forth. Then I mentioned an exchange I had with my old mentor Dr. Tom Lincoln of RAND Corporation.

To say Tom was eccentric would be an understatement. Before medical school, Tom earned a degree in cryptozoology. He was one of Carl Jung’s graduate students. He drank expensive scotch and wore tennis shoes everywhere, even to Congressional briefings. And he had this penchant for collecting weird things, which he sometimes showed me: a photograph album of the human body viewed as a series of 300 cross sections, medical files of Ebola patients, notes from meetings with Norman Schwarzkopf in which they war-gamed Desert Storm and a draft contingency plan to remove the President from office by force should the need arise.

Back in the bland days of Bill Clinton, the very idea was ridiculous – far-fetched X-files stuff. But the US military being what it is, they have plans for everything, including occupation of Canada by extraterrestrials. I have no idea how Tom got his hands on it. But a draft contingency designed by some low-level military wonk back in the Seventies (probably in response to Watergate), now long declassified and replaced, made for interesting reading at the time. Sean thought it might make for interesting writing in the here and now.

“Goddamn!” he cried with the unabashed exuberance that makes me love the guy. “Let’s write that story! Let’s write it now!”

So we did.

With the same momentum that I imagine must have carried Crosby, Stills, Nash and 6561757-M[1]Young through recording and releasing of Ohio  within three weeks of Kent State, Sean and I produced Certain Fury  in a fever. E-mailing pages back and forth between Vancouver Island and Florida, we built a fast-paced, character-driven thriller novella in (what I hope is) the vein of Fletcher Knebel or Richard Rohmer, and had a blast doing it. Our easy friendship made the collaboration a joy and along the way I rekindled my romance with writing straight-ahead thrillers. My friendship with writers like Alex Shaw, Steve Konkoly, Jamie Mason (no, the other Jamie Mason) and Ali Karim often pulls me into that very distinct orbit of publishing, and I have written two novellas for Steve’s Perseid Collapse series that remain some of my most well-received work to date. It was good to be back in familiar terrain.

Because we wanted to respond to shifting circumstances, engaging any of the traditional publishers with whom Sean and I have worked in the past simply wasn’t practical. We wanted to respond to the ongoing crisis in the American situation and put something out now, like a rock single. Fortunately, a variety of alternative, self-publishing platforms exist so we chose KDP and I took over the helm. Producing Certain Fury  forced me to polish off project management and production skills I haven’t used in a long time and I was surprised to find myself enjoying that side of the experience more than I expected. The project might be self-published, but I was determined to involve the same pro-level artists, editors and formatters Sean and I had both used for our house projects so I contacted them. To my great delight, they were willing to come onboard as sub-contractors. Felicia Sullivan performed her editorial magic under extreme time crunch, Christian Bentulan crafted a beautiful cover and the mighty  Kody Boye provided a timely, tasty e-book mark-up. Wrangling all this in the tight time-span we had required chops I’d left dormant since the old days. It sure felt like a professional endeavor, but of course …

We’re self-publishing, I thought – something I told myself I’d never do. But it’s for a good 51bs537ve6L.SX316[1]cause. We were responding to events – something artists often feel compelled to do.

Even the guys cranking out thrillers in the basement .

Right around this time, I found myself recalling the men’s adventure novels of the 1970s, the books that first inspired me to write: Don Pendleton’s Executioner books, Donovan’s Devils and the Malko series from France. I wondered whatever became of that whole strata of publishing. Men’s pulp adventure fiction with a strong military focus seems like an anachronism in our enlightened era of safe spaces, political correctness and ascendant feminism. And there’s nothing wrong with any of those things, as far as I’m concerned …

But there isn’t anything wrong with men’s pulp adventure novels, either.

61+un+dEWZL._SY346_[1]Meanwhile, I learned that The Executioner enjoys a robust afterlife in e-book. And it occurred to me, staring at an early edition of Certain Fury, that it might be worthwhile to make more of these things.

I’m not proposing opening my own publishing house. But I’d sure like to do more books like this and involve other writers, and use such projects to generate paying work for them as well as the artists, editors and formatters who will help us bring quality men’s adventure fiction to market. The totality of the enterprise is at a fuzzy stage just now. Call Certain Fury  a trial run. All my contacts are in place: the artists, copy-editors and other pros needed to see the work done right. I know at least one other writer (possibly two) willing to write a book. Perhaps others will read this and consider contacting me. I hope they do, but I’ll confess right now that I probably have more questions than answers. Will this beast be a micro-press? A publishing co-op? A small start-up? How will we sustain and extend our present funding? How will the novels be received? How will we grow our audience? How will our peers and mentors in the publishing world view our efforts?

Beats me. But I’m having fun and plan to continue. We will produce e-books and a few print editions of what I call “7-11 lunch” fiction: a sammich, an apple and a cookie. Nothing gourmet, but easy to swallow and just plain damn fun. Because isn’t that what this whole fiction thing is supposed to be?Rudy the Rhino

For now I am calling it Storm Rhino Press.

Fear the Rhino.

GRIST IN THE MILL OF JUSTICE: Notes on Spiritual Resistance

Allow me to begin by saying that this essay will not be of interest to everyone who reads it. This is because not everyone in our society engages in some form of spiritual practice. I take this opportunity to differentiate the spiritual from the religious: the latter is a series of procedures and observances, the former an attempt to enact religious principles in everyday life. The Republican Party of the United States is an excellent example of an organization that adheres to visible pieties while making no attempt to enact the religious principles of the tradition from which those pieties spring. In contrast to Jesus’s instructions to feed the hungry, for example, Republican politicians at all levels of US government routinely conspire to cut food stamp programs, criminalize homelessness and restrict healthcare options for women (with disproportionately negative repercussions upon families living in poverty). The lawmakers who do this can rightly claim to be religious “men of God” as they contribute to public charities and demonstrate the fundamental pieties of regular church attendance. However, in their failure to enact religious principles in everyday life, they abdicate any claim to spirituality.

There have been historical moments when the spiritual and the religious have operated in close parallel. An example of this would be in Medieval European village life wherein the regular cycle of confession, absolution, church attendance and spiritual observance was closely connected to the everyday life and yearly rhythms of the people as they could only be in a small village. There was, of course, an element of subjugation in all of this. The Church itself benefitted from the prevailing power structure, as it always has. But priests and bishops felt a real obligation to care for the people, and they did. On those occasions when members of the aristocracy abused their power and victimized the poor, the religious community threatened to embargo access to the offices of salvation in an effort to restore justice. This balance of power, precarious thought it was, served the interests of the people for centuries.

But increasingly, the Church (broadly defined) has chosen to maintain its allegiance to power in the face of demonstrated lawlessness and corruption. When the clergy abdicate their mandate to care for the people, then the Church – like the faithful – forfeits any claim to spiritual authority. Any religious leader, for example, who sided with Adolf Hitler conferred upon Hitler’s acts a tacit stamp of religious approval. Every religious establishment faces, in times of social crisis, a choice: whether to side with the people or with the powerful.

A striking response to this choice may be found in the Liberation Theology movement of the Catholic Church. As a pagan, I have studied the tenets of liberation theology, and I am strongly convinced they offer guidelines for future engagement on the political plane. The main idea and central thrust of Liberation Theology has nowhere been expressed more succinctly than in Richard McBrien’s CATHOLICISM:
“God is disclosed in the historical ‘praxis’ of liberation. It is the situation, and our passionate and reflective involvement in it, which mediates the Word of God. Today that Word is mediated through the cries of the poor and the oppressed.” – pp. 249-250

It seems opportune, at a moment when the world’s richest nation has elevated a billionaire to the highest political office in the land (and, arguably, the world), for religious people of all faiths to question their relationship to the structures of power. Be we Catholic, Wiccan, Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish or of any faith which posits a moral standard, we must question where we fall on said standard. Put simply: the best measure of an individual or a society lies in its relation to the Poor. At a time when the forces of oligarchy and brutality are in ascendance, people of all faiths would do well to examine their relationship to the poor, to the oppressed and the disadvantaged and ask: are we truly standing with them?

If we find ourselves wanting, we might want to take this moment to consider how best to re-engage in the work of charity and witness for the oppressed. So many politically active friends of mine are taking steps against the current wave of oligarchy and xenophobia by calling their representatives, contributing to charities and going to protests. All of these are excellent actions. But they are made even stronger by a commitment to endure, to stay the course and to remain focused on a moral compass. Faithful spiritual practice can work to reinforce this commitment.

A spiritual practice which meditates upon social justice is a spiritual practice built for the long run. A daily meditation, an immersion in prayer and communion with the divine will be fundamental to this effort. And our efforts, make no mistake, are of global importance. Put simply, we cannot – and must not – turn away from those who will be most ruthlessly victimized in the coming new order. We must practice love when dealing with the Other and we must fortify ourselves for the work ahead. I can think of no better preparation for people of faith than to sharpen the tools of spiritual resistance. We must pray together, break bread together and prepare to go to jail together in witness of our beliefs. For without that witness, spirituality becomes the empty observance of a dead religion. We are privileged to live in interesting times – times in which we are called to be grist in the mill of justice.

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Welcome to the White Zone

In the 1971 sci-fi film THX-1138, the eponymous hero played by Robert Duvall is sentenced to a term of confinement. But instead of jail cells, the justice system of the futuristic dystopia he inhabits has evolved a new kind of incarceration: within an endless expanse of flat white wilderness so vast it blunts ability to perceive distance or perspective. There, individually and in small pods, the criminals of THX’s world go slowly mad as the system grinds on without them. (Or, perhaps more properly, over them.)

The deafening silence of many of my fellow Caucasians in the wake of Donald Trump’s election victory is, frankly, every bit as frightening. I wonder if perhaps they simply fail to comprehend who these men are that Trump is appointing feverishly to just those positions any tyrant would consolidate beneath him the moment he seized power: national security, intelligence, military and the attorney general’s office. The news that President Trump will be coached by alt right champion Stephen Bannon and gay hater Mike Pence, and advised on National Security matters by perennial Pentagon outsider and anti-Muslim kook Michael Flynn is perhaps lost on them. Or maybe they don’t understand how civil rights will be rolled back for women, GLBT folk and Muslims under the pending First Amendment Defense Act, scheduled for vote by the GOP majority House and Senate upon resumption of business and almost guaranteed a signature by President Trump. Perhaps they just don’t get these things. Perhaps their understanding has been blunted by the perspective-flattening horror of cable news and the pseudo-journalism of the Alex Jones crowd to the point at which they don’t perceive the threat.

Or perhaps they just don’t care.

White supremacy is a virus: once it enters a population, it propagates quickly. Upon achieving critical mass it transforms itself into an exponential fractal, attaining a speed and virulence at which it becomes unstoppable. By the time it breaks into view, the window for stopping or reversing the process has shrunk to a period of weeks, if not days. I’m wondering how many of my fellow Caucasians feel which way the wind is blowing and have just decided it’s easier to say nothing, to go along and not resist. That failure to declare one’s self for one camp or the other, to voice an opinion, to engage in the civil process creates a vast, empty horizon – a white space like Robert Duvall’s prison – that is seized upon by more energetic forces.

These forces, and their agenda, are resolving into clarity before our very eyes. And we should be very, very frightened.

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