Teaching Tradition

There’s a dilemma.  Many thinking religious conservatives end up arguing against “secular” education and yet wish to make themselves out as rational, and reasonable.  The truth is that underlying their position is the belief that the truth was revealed long ago and nothing has changed since then.  They want educated individuals to agree with this so quite often they establish their own institutions to turn out “experts” who haven’t been challenged in their positions.  This became clear to me yet again when reading Faith of Our Fathers by Stuart Chessman.  Subtitled A Brief History of Catholic Traditionalism in the United States from Triumph to Traditionis Custodes, I was expecting a history.  Instead it is more of a screed, or jeremiad, arguing that the Catholic Church is trying to destroy traditionalism.  What I was looking for, I guess, was a “secular” history.

I’m interested in traditionalism.  I taught, after all, for well over a decade at Nashotah House.  What I learned there I also sensed in this book.  There’s a certain naiveté associated with such theological thinking.  (Political conservatism is much more insidious.)  Small groups tend to think the larger organization has it in for them.  In reality, the larger church (in both these cases) has much more pragmatic things on its collective mind.  The narrow focus of traditionalists, however, interprets everything in the light of—in this case—rejecting the liturgical reforms of Vatican II.  Having the mass in Latin is more important (as is clear here) than coming up with an effective way of dealing with Covid-19.  Traditionalists are proud that they met more frequently during the height of the epidemic.

This kind of thinking is important to understand.  For Roman Catholicism, as a hierarchical organization, the projection of unity is very important.  Anyone involved in the upper levels of any administration knows that money—even for churches, especially for churches—is a major concern.  Reputation influences cash flow, so reputation has to be guarded at all costs.  No organization can appear to be caught up in medievalism in a capitalistic twenty-first century.  I had hoped this little book would contain an actual history of the movement, looking at socio-economic, political, and religious causes and their ramifications.  In other words, why people do things.  Believe me, I understand the draw of traditionalism.  Although it was in English my first Episcopal high mass threw me into a multi-year odyssey to a place (Nashotah House) where I learned what was really going on.  It’s not all about smells and bells.  Not by a long shot. 


A Bird’s Life

Among the early signs of spring are birds.  Cold and silent, winter mornings have their own form of beauty, but hearing the birds is cause for hope.  The bird world looks cheerful and peaceable but it is a competitive and often harsh place.  My office window looks out onto a porch roof and a stand of trees across the street.  Electric wires constitute a part of the scene as well, giving birds plenty of places to alight and negotiate their bird business.  Like humans, birds are vulnerable, particularly when they’re young.  While teaching at Nashotah House, walking home from chapel one morning after a thunderstorm, I found a baby bird, not yet fully fledged, dying on the sidewalk.  I glanced up and couldn’t see any nests.  I’m not much of climber anyway.  Not knowing what to do I scooped it up and took it home where I could put it in a box.

I didn’t have an early class that day so I called a wildlife rescue center.  Being the days before the internet took over, this was a matter of looking it up in the yellow pages.  We piled the family in the car and drove it down.  They’d told me to keep it warm and try to comfort it.  My daughter held it.  Once we got there they said they weren’t sure if it would survive.  It was weak and chilled, but they would do what they could to revive it.  For several days we all worried about that hatchling.  I thought it might’ve been a finch because of the beak, but otherwise we knew little about it.  Several weeks later the rescue center called.  Our rescue was ready to be released—did we want to do it?

They handed us a brown grocery bag that weighed next to nothing.  “Open it when you’re outside near where you found it,” they said.  Back on campus we opened the bag and our foundling flew off so fast we could barely see it.  Adult birds, confident and socialized, seem more sure of themselves.  They perch out in the open even though hawks scan the area, and even the occasional eagle.  They go about their bird business with a confidence I sometimes envy.  They don’t worry about a 925.  They know what nature’s about.  They may have survived a near-fatal childhood.  They may have pushed siblings out of the nest to have thrived.  They peck and flap at each other in their efforts to mate.  And, above all, they carry spring on their wings.


Just Curious

I’m constantly reminded of the dangers of it.  Interdisciplinarity, I mean.  We all know the cliched image of the myopic professor unable to function in the world because he (and it’s normally a he) has spent all his time on one subject.  Such people do exist, and they are generally institutionalized.  (What else can society do with them?)  More recently, however, the emphasis in higher education has been on interdisciplinary pursuits.  Many modern doctorates span two areas and many modern professors show themselves as adept at activities beyond their “day jobs.”  It is difficult, however, to be an expert in more than one thing.  In my own case, I had interdisciplinarity thrust upon me.  I’m therefore constantly being reminded of how tricky it can be.

While hot on the trail of a new angle recently, I found what I thought was the only book on a subject.  (All these years and am I still so naive?)  I started reading only to discover that the topic had been explored many times before by scholars, beginning in the decade I was born.  Clearly, if I wish to speak intelligently on this topic I should go back and start at the beginning.  So it is with interdisciplinary work.  Ironically, the book I was reading was itself interdisciplinary, demonstrating that old Ecclesiastes was right all along.  

My own research journey has been one of restlessness.  Others have seen this more clearly than I have.  Once at the Nashotah House bookstore I had a discussion the the manager about rocks.  This particular woman was certainly smart enough to have been on the faculty, and she saw things those of us that were didn’t.  I concluded by saying I didn’t know why I’d been so taken by geology to which she replied, “If it wasn’t geology it would be something else.  You’re curious.”  She knew me better than I did.  My curiosity about geology was deep and intense.  (It still is.)  I realized suddenly, it seems, that I knew too little about the very ground upon which I walked all day.  What could be more basic than rock?

On my desk

If anyone bothers to look at my full list of publications it quickly becomes clear that geology is absent.  I never became an expert, but I still read about it and pick up interesting rocks.  A small piece of rose quartz with a fresh fracture face stopped me in my tracks one very cold morning recently.  I’m sure plenty has been written on the subject.  The safest thing, however, is to become an expert on one thing.  Safest, but dullest.


Out of Hades

They went together naturally, like chocolate and peanut butter.  Just about seven months ago Jim Steinman died.  Then yesterday, Meat Loaf.  They were both born in 1947 and together they made one of the best selling albums of all time, Bat Out of Hell.  I’m saddened by the loss of perhaps the only truly Wagnerian Rock performer.  After I discovered Bat Out of Hell, raising some eyebrows among those who knew me as a kid, I was hooked.  I bought all the Meat Loaf and Steinman collaborations.  Not only was Meat Loaf’s voice big, it was also sincere.  It was easy to believe the stories he was singing to us, no matter how fantasy-prone they might’ve been.  Once I start listening to one of his albums I end up going through them all.

When we become aware of music helps to define it.  I became aware of Bat Out of Hell during my Nashotah House years.  Still fearful from my evangelical upbringing, I wondered what students might think when they came over.  (Nashotah is a residential campus, and this was largely before the days when faculty were fearful of being alone with a student.)  As strange as it may sound, for a best-selling album, I was unfamiliar with any of the songs before I bought it.  I’ve never been much of a radio listener.  I agonized quite a bit before finally buying the CD.  I quickly came to see why it was so popular.  More than anything, it was the sincerity of Meat Loaf’s voice.

That music saw me through some dark times.  Attending mass in the mornings and listening to Meat Loaf at night proved an effective elixir.  The longer I was at Nashotah the more I came to associate it with the titular geonym.  Eventually Bat Out of Hell II came out.  I was less slow about acquiring it.  The third one appeared only after my teaching career ended.  When things went south at Nashotah, I decided that I would perform some symbolic actions during my departure.  There was nobody there to witness any of them—no person is indispensable to an institution and you’re soon forgotten.  The last thing packed from our on-campus house was the stereo.  I went back alone to get it and the few last-minute belongings from well over a decade in a place of torment.  Just before leaving campus for the last time I cranked the stereo up and played “Bat Out of Hell” at full volume.  An era has come to an end.


Come In

It feels good.  To be invited, that is.  Like many people I know how rare it can be.  When teaching at Nashotah House, invitations were scarce.  It’s a small seminary, not widely known.  Besides, the internet was in its infancy then and a great many people (including the seminary dean) were suspicious of it.  Few invitations came.  None for peer review opportunities, none for interviews.  I was invited to the Ugaritic Tablets Digital Edition project (for which I wrote a successful grant application) but that was because I met one of the lead editors while my wife was studying at the University of Illinois.  It’s strange, but nice, to be invited to things now.  It still happens rarely, but when it does it has two things in common: the invitations come closely spaced in time, and they have to do with horror.

Photo by Stella de Smit on Unsplash

This past week two invitations came.  One was to review an independent horror movie for Horror Homeroom and the other was to have an interview on the New Books Network.  Since this is the internet and since the internet’s endlessly self-referential, I’ll be writing about them both in more detail, directing you to the end results when they arrive.  It just feels good to be included.  I didn’t have many academic mentors at Nashotah House.  I’m a first-generation college-student; I didn’t know what academia would try to do to a person.  I had no idea what a “post-doc” was.  I did publish an article a year and write a second book which, I understood, was the key to getting hired by a “real school.”  I had a few interviews, but I’m demographically challenged, I guess.

Weathering the Psalms was written at Nashotah House but it has only led to one weekend church program.  My books on horror, written post-academe, have managed to get some small measure of attention.  It always struck me as ironic that, although raised among the theology crowd I never really found acceptance among them.  Those who know there’s something to horror, however, are a welcoming crowd.  The other day I was listening to Alice Cooper’s Welcome to My Nightmare and realized, whether intentional or not, the invitation was sincere.  It remains one of the formative albums of my life.  As a child the only invitations I had were altar calls.  I responded to many.  As an adult I’m still inclined to say “yes” when someone invites me in.  Rarity only adds value.


Masking Identity

Who am I, really?  Identity has been on my mind quite a bit during this pandemic.  With millions dying I suppose it’s important that “the officials” know who we are.  At the same time I don’t feel comfortable taking my mask off in front of strangers.  It’s kind of like a facial striptease that puts you at risk for some communicable disease.  Because I had to fly for Thanksgiving this year I got to put my Real ID to the test.  I removed my mask for the photo—at the DMV, of all places—so there was risk involved to prove that I am who I’ve always been.  When I went to get a Pennsylvania license three years ago, the system remembered me from when I got my permit and asked if I still lived in the county where that had occurred.  They seem to know a lot about me.

At the airport the TSA guy told me to take off my mask.  He had to confirm that I was the same person my Real ID stated I was.  I wish our government would tell me who I am.  And of course my passport decided to expire also during this pandemic.  I went to a local pharmacy to get my passport photo taken.  (I know you can do this at home, but you need a printer that handles photo paper.)  Then you can send the application in by mail.  How do they know it’s really me in the photo?  I had an uncanny experience many years ago when a visiting team from the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) visited Nashotah House for an accreditation visit.  One of the inspectors looked very like me.  I think we both noticed the resemblance immediately.  It was like we were twins.  Later I found his photo on the school website and asked my pre-literate daughter who it was.  She said “Daddy.”

Who is that masked man?

So I’m standing here with my mask off in a store for confirmation that I am who I claim to be.  I wonder if this other guy’s photo were sent in would they know the difference?  In fact I’ve had the experience I suspect many people have had of being mistaken for someone else.  Helping a friend move to Kentucky after college, I had several people in a small town I’d never visited before identify me as Joe’s son.  I looked just like him.  Of course, that was way before the pandemic when our faces were public property.  Now I just wish I could put my mask back on so that I could feel a little less naked.


Global Swarming

It’s a veritable horror trope.  The swarm, that is.  We fear being overwhelmed by vast numbers of apparently innocuous insects or arachnids, although they are much smaller than us.  It’s their logistical superiority, and perhaps their utter disregard of personal space.  Summer at Nashotah House was the time of the earwigs.  They came out in such numbers that no room in the house was safe from them.  There was a horror element to pulling your toothbrush out of the holder only to find one hanging onto the place you were about to put your fingers.  Or opening the refrigerator to find that one had crawled into the butter.  Any time you picked something up you might find an earwig under it.  They would crawl up the walls and across the ceiling.  Other places on campus would be overrun with ladybugs or black flies.  It was in the woods, after all.

Most places we’ve lived since then have had their native bug that gets in, often in numbers.  Our current nemesis is the box elder bug.  Although harmless, it is a true bug in every sense of the word.  I’m Buddhist in my desire not to kill and there are too many to catch and take them back outside.  Fortunately they’re pretty localized—they like my study, probably because its southern exposure means it gets sunshine even into December.  We’ve had some cold days but November has been experiencing global warming and the box elder bugs, clueless, wander all over the place.  Most of them are near the end of their life and die after poking around for a few days.  Others are quite frisky.  Some remind me of horror movies from the fifties.

I have one of those desk set Stonehenge models.  I don’t have the space to set it up fully, and the die for the model was obviously done with poorly sculpted clay, so it takes some imagination to think the trilithons resemble those of the actual site.  When I noticed a box elder bug crawling over one, however, it took me back to Tarantula and other such films where the menace wasn’t just a little old bug, but a huge one.  Our monsters these days have shrunk, however, and fear comes in small packages.  Box elder bugs are harmless but annoying.  Of course, they’re still out this year because we’ve warmed the place up for them and even in November they, well, swarm.


Dark Academia

Genres can be slippery things.  Those of us who dabble in fiction sometimes find it difficult to describe what we do.  Writing is individual expression and it may have elements of this and that.  Given my disposition, much of my fiction has some horror features but I tend to think of it as something else.  My wife recently sent me an article on Book Riot about the genre Dark Academia.  The piece by Adiba Jaigirdar begins by asking the question of what exactly dark academia is.  The label conjures up books about something untoward happening in the halls of learning, and that certainly qualifies.  It’s difficult to be more precise because it’s different things to different people.  Some of my fiction, in my own mind, falls into that category.  Things go wrong in higher education all the time.  Why not preserve it in fiction?

I’ve attended, and worked at some gothic places.  The contemporary university, such as Rutgers—although it’s old by American standards—has continuously modernized and although I don’t know it’s history well, I suspect gothic was never its aesthetic.  The same is true of Boston University where I went to seminary.  Edinburgh University, while also modernizing, has retained much of its gothic feel.  That’s certainly true of New College, where I studied, in the heart of the medieval old town.  There’s a gravitas to such dark settings.  They invite strangeness.  My first teaching job was at the intentionally gothic Nashotah House.  Although I didn’t agree with the politics I loved the setting.

I seem to have slipped from Dark Academia into Gothic Academia.  Indeed, it’s difficult to keep the two distinct in my mind.  When I taught I maintained the tweed jacket and somewhat disheveled look of someone who has something else besides grooming in mind (this is entirely genuine).  Indeed, that’s one of the great charms of higher education.  You need not constantly worry about each hair being in place—they’ll take care of that when they shoot the movie.  Not many people, and probably a diminishing number given the state of things, experience full-time life in academia.  It can be well lit and modern.  If done right, however, it should take you into odd places.  Discovery is generally messy.  Perhaps that’s part of the dark of dark academia.  When we use our brains we end up in unexpected places.  I’m not sure I understand dark academia, but I have a feeling that I’ve lived it even without my fiction.


Eve’s True Desire

Psst—don’t tell anyone!  There is a free copy of my first book available on Academia.edu.  I thought I was kind of radical for doing that, but people who write books want people to read them.  Having a book priced $70 or more, heck, even $30 or more, means only diehards will buy it.  Nightmares with the Bible promptly sank at $100 cover price, released during a pandemic.  I’ve always admired scholars who’ve bucked conventions to make their work available.  Recently I needed to consult a book.  I won’t say what it is because I fear a take-down order will be issued where I found it.  The author, aware the book was hard to access, actually photocopied the entire book and put it on a website.  I stand up and cheer!  Photocopying an entire book is a lot of work, a labor of pure love.

Now, I’m all for authors getting royalties.  It takes a lot of time and energy to write a book.  It can cost years of your life.  You ought to get something back for it.  It seems to me, however, that a different model is required for academic books.  Why are they so expensive?  Not only that, but smaller publishers without the distribution channels often publish worthwhile books, but in small quantities and they go out of print after the initial run is sold.  The academic enterprise (knowledge for knowledge’s sake) has become a captive of capitalism.  There’s no other way to trade in that market.  Books that have willing, even eager, readers are sequestered in libraries only accessible to employees.  Is there anything wrong with that picture?

Academics at less wealthy institutions often find ways around the rules.  I did my research for Weathering the Psalms at a small seminary that had trouble getting unusual items on interlibrary loan.  Bigger schools were distrustful of this tiny enclave called Nashotah House.  Would they ever get their rare property back?  Meanwhile worldwide mail service crisscrossed with offprints sent for free from scholar to scholar.  It was like your birthday, or Christmas, when a long-awaited piece of research landed in your mailbox.  Nobody was in it for the money.  We were beguiled by learning.  Eve looking wistfully up into the tree.  Now it’s all business suits with dollar signs for eyes.  The academic who puts their book up for free on the internet is nothing less than a saint.  Seeking knowledge is never really a sin.

Tasty fruit of knowledge

Before Current Parameters

I recently had cause, for a work project, to survey which Episcopal seminaries are still around.  You see, I began my teaching career at Nashotah House.  (There were few teaching jobs in the early nineties, although we’d been promised a glut in the late eighties when I set out on that career track.)  In any case, I remembered marveling that the Episcopal Church had eleven seminaries.  For perspective, one of the largest Protestant denominations, the Methodists, only had thirteen.  Enrollments were high in those days.  Before the rise of the Nones, seminary teaching was a viable, if perhaps staid, option for a career.  Or in the case of some of us, it would be a holding pattern until something more suitable came along.  (I’ve always thought of myself as a small college professor.)

So the list of Episcopal seminaries is now down to ten, but those ten are much diminished from what they were back in the nineties.  Seabury, the nearest competitor to the south of Nashotah, has merged with Bexley Hall to make a very small federation.  Berkeley at Yale is a Jonah in the whale.  Episcopal Divinity School had to vacate campus and merge with Union in New York, leaving the tradition Episcopal stronghold of Boston.  The others seem to be clinging on.  In the midst of all this I learned that the Anglican Church in North America, a conservative break-away denomination, has reissued the Book of Common Prayer.  The BCP, as it’s fondly known, has a long and venerable history.  The 1979 edition has both a more conservative and a more modern liturgy, but even that doesn’t seem to be enough to prevent fracturing.

Photo credit: Church of England, via Wikimedia Commons

Fracturing.  Estimates for the number of denominations in North America set the figure at about 40,000.  No wonder Nones are among the fastest growing category!  If you’re going to place your eternal salvation on a bet, and there are that many options to choose from, the odds seem awfully long.  In some cases it’s a matter of being in the right state, or city, where the “one true church” exists.  If you miss it by thirty miles you could end up in Hell.  And all this with shrinking numbers.  The landscape has changed since I entered the seminary world.  Even as the numbers go down the fragmentation increases.  From a bird’s eye view this looks pretty odd.  Even if you look to the Prayer Book for solace you have to ask which one.  I just make the sign of the cross and move on.


Healing Time

Twenty years ago today I walked into the refectory at Nashotah House after morning mass and wondered why the television was on.  Normally people had their own theological issues to hash out over breakfast, so this was unusual.   When I saw what was happening, I skipped breakfast and went home to my family.  I remember the feeling of shock and terror of those days.  America, I knew, wasn’t the innocent nation it projects itself as being.  We had provoked, but none of that mattered as the isolationism of over two centuries on a mostly friendly continent crumbled.  We were vulnerable.  Living in the woods of Wisconsin there was no immediate danger, but the sense of confusion—and certainly the feeling that a less-than-bright president wasn’t up to handle this—made us all feel weak, even with the most powerful military in the world.

Yesterday the New York Times headlines ran a consideration on whether we’ve emerged better in the ensuing two decades.  Looking at where we are—a deeply divided nation because a narcissistic president that the majority of voters voted against put (and still puts) his ego ahead of the good of the country—the answer seems obvious.  It will take years, if not decades, to heal the damage that one man did.  His putative party (really his only party is himself), seeing his popularity as their means to power, refuse to distance themselves.  We simply cannot move forward.  Not in the midst of a pandemic where Trump followers won’t get vaccinated causing new waves of the virus to surface and thrive.  I’d like to think that on September 11 we might reflect—yes, I know it’s hard work—on how we all need each other.

Photo by Jesse Mills on Unsplash

Little could I have guessed in 2001 that a mere ten years later I would find myself working in Manhattan.  Somewhere in my mind on every day of that long commute I wondered if something might again go wrong.  On the bus I was thrown together with people of every description—well paid and just getting by, women and men, gay and straight, from all around the world—and we knew our fates were linked together.  Differences had to be put aside.  Selfishness has no room on a crowded bus.  That was my introduction to life in New York City.  Those who hear only the poison rhetoric of 2016 through 2020 should try commuting with an open mind.  If we all took the bus, life after 9-11 might’ve turned out very differently.


Screaming Season

The signs are all around.  The orange and black Spirit Halloween signs are appearing where vacant storefronts stand.  Advertisements for autumnal activities are cropping up.  Brochures broadcasting local haunted festivities now adorn store counters, free for the taking.  I picked up a leaflet for the local Field of Screams the other day although I really don’t like to be in scary situations.  I do appreciate the spooky sense that they generate, however.  This local event runs from early September through early November—the two months enterprising farmers can draw urbanites to their land, cash in hand.  Halloween has been a major money-maker for many years now.  The less doleful minded wonder why, but I think that lots of us are really afraid.  Halloween says it’s okay to be so.

Perhaps it’s the realization that it’s all in good fun and nobody will really hurt you.  I’ve attended a few of these haunted events over the years, but it was more fun to participate in them.  Perhaps it goes back to Nashotah House.  I’m guessing that most of you’ve never been.  Nashotah is a gothic campus, at one time pretty isolated, out in the woods.  Halloween was, once upon a time, a real celebration there.  Our maintenance crew would offer a hayride through farm fields owned by the school, then through the cemetery on campus.  I used to dress in a grim reaper costume and carry a kerosene lamp through the graveyard, awaiting the tractor.  Nobody instructed me to do it, but we all knew it was in good fun.  And I wasn’t the only volunteer who’d pop out from behind headstones.  Students got into the spirit of it too.

These days remembering such shenanigans is more appealing than actually going out at night to have other people scare me.  The last time I went to a haunted maze it was really too unnerving for me to enjoy.  I volunteered instead for a local haunted house in New Jersey.  The run up to Halloween was usually an intensely creative time of designing and fabricating homemade costumes, and thinking of ways to make pumpkins look scary.  Now it’s become a season in its own right.  An important segment of the economy.  I won’t be going to our local Field of Screams, but I will understand those who do.  Changes are in the air.  It’s dark quite a bit earlier these days.  The air is chilly in the morning.  And the local fear fields open this weekend.


EBW

Nashotah House was a strange place to begin (and end) a teaching career.  Not only did you see students every day, but as faculty you were required to eat and worship with them twice a day.  (You were grudgingly permitted to have supper at home, with family, if applicable.)  You got to know students, and sometimes their families, well.  I suppose that was the point.  We had a lot of students from Texas, and one year a student spouse said she cried all the way home when she found her first colored leaf on the ground.  Granted, Wisconsin winters could be cold.  Even here in balmy Pennsylvania we have to use the furnace from October through May, leaving only four months of the year without artificial heat.  And even September can get pretty chilly.  I was thinking about this student spouse when I started to see the walnut trees turning yellow in July.

Yes, each plant has its own rhythm.  Not all of them need all their leaves until October or November.  Walnuts, however, are an interesting species (or whatever the plural of species is).  The walnuts you eat are probably of the Persian or English walnut variety.  Here in the United States, the Eastern Black Walnut is perhaps the most common deciduous tree east of the Mississippi, but since the nuts are hard to crack they aren’t grown commercially.  Squirrels worship them.  The EBW (do I really have to type out Eastern Black Walnut again?) is famous for its use of allelopathic chemicals.  Some people say it poisons the soil, but more specifically, allelopathic plants distribute chemicals into the soil that favor the growth of “friendly” species and inhibit others.  Yes, plants are quite smart.  The EBW is also wise in its use of the squirrel.  These ubiquitous chewers disperse the nuts widely.  It isn’t uncommon for me to find one on my porch when I go out for my early morning constitutional.  

The air is beginning to feel cool once in a while in the early mornings.  Like the walnut trees and the squirrels, I think I’m at the very early stages of feeling autumn coming on.  We’re still many weeks away from the colors of fall, harvest, and Halloween, but the wheel of the year is still turning.  It never really holds still.  We have the languorous month of August ahead, with its long, warm days and summertime activities.  The walnuts stand as sentinels, however, reminding us that nature is ever restless and ever inclined to change.  I don’t weep to see the changing leaves, but I do marvel at how nature seems to plan ahead for autumn, even in the midst of summer.


Looking In

There’s a real danger to the lifelong study of religion.  Learning to look at any tradition from the point of view of an observer will create a sense of being on the outside looking in.  I’m a member of a religious organization.  I occasionally consider pursuing ordination within it—this was my original sense of my calling in life—but I’m compelled to consider the phenomenon of being outside looking in.  When I was an Episcopalian (before the church showed its true colors in my particular case), I wrote a letter to my rector asking how I could get off of the church steps and be invited inside.  My rector wrote back with some insipid advice and was among those who voted, as a trustee, to oust me from my fourteen-year career at Nashotah House.  Outside again.

Studying the history of religions provides dangerous levels of insight.  Simple, mindless acceptance of teachings becomes impossible.  This isn’t arrogance, as any who know me can attest, but rather a form of hyper-awareness.  You can’t emerge from forty-plus years of reading about, and deeply pondering, religion unscathed.  Many, of course, dismiss any observations by those lacking the denominational seal of approval.  “If you knew what you were talking about,” so the reasoning goes, “you’d be a minister or a professor.”  So you speak from the sidelines at best.  Outside.  Even within my own group I have merely the role of “member,” lacking the official piece of paper from the seminary or other accrediting body that states I might know some things.

Of course, I have much yet to learn.  This religion thing is a tough nut to crack.  Were I younger and better paid I might consider undergoing college again to take a different path.  As it is, I’ve invested more than a half-century trying to get where I am, wherever that is.  I sit outside watching the birds.  They’re back pretty much in full force now.  They seem so certain about where they’re going.  How can you fly without a full level of commitment?  Earthbound, I muddle about with my head somewhere above the clouds I cannot reach.  I read about religious traditions unknown to me.  Often I find nuggets of great value in them.  Of course, I’m not clergy so you need not take my word for it.  I, after all, draw inspiration simply by sitting outside, always outside, and watching the birds. 


Pandemic Thoughts

Waiting for rescue.  For many years now, I’ve been hoping for it.  It goes back to my first professional job at Nashotah House, perhaps earlier.  Particularly late in the game, I found myself wondering when I might be rescued from that difficult situation.  The teaching and research I loved, but the context was brutal.  The hoped for salvation never came.  Since those days the wishes have swung around to a steady job in a field I love.  One for which I trained.  The feeling arises particularly on weekends.  Often busier than even workdays, I nevertheless sense an almost gothic freedom to them, and Monday rolls around again reminding me that salvation never came.  Things are still the same.  Now, I don’t just sit around waiting for rescue.  I throw out all kinds of lines.  I shout and squirm and try to make myself known.  The ocean is large, however, and my voice is small.  

Perhaps this sense is a natural outgrowth of being raised in a religion that emphasized personal salvation.  The sudden conversion experience.  It was easy to believe things could change rapidly for the better.  Science, particularly uniformitarianism, tells us that the same slow processes always hold.  Solomon was right after all—there’s nothing new under the sun.  At least nothing that we couldn’t see coming for a good, long time.  Out here the horizon stretches ever so far in every direction.  Religions realize the problems with this sameness.  They give us sacred times and sacred spaces.  (The latter of which, however, the pandemic has forced online.)

Rescues that evolve can take many years to reach effective strength.  As a child I recall anticipating the rescue of adult respectability.  When I grew up people would listen to me because I was an adult.  For a brief while that was the case when I stood in the classroom and some students came because they wanted to learn.  I learned from them, and they, I hope, learned from me.  Perhaps this situation arises less among those raised in stable, middle-class families.  Perhaps they don’t sense the constant wolf pacing outside the door.  Maybe salvation is primarily for the poor.  Whoever it’s for and whencever it comes, the feeling has been with me for decades.  Rescue, it seems, is a construct we badly need.  At least on a philosophical level.  The pandemic has leveled our concept of time to a stifling sameness.  I’m prepared.  I’ve been waiting for rescue for as long as I can remember.  Then Monday rolls around again.