Monasticism in Lockdown America, Part 1

jail-3-4X3The gentlemen I’ve been visiting in my local jail for the past decade live a daily existence, I’ve often considered, not unlike monks in the monastery I’ve also visited.

They don’t have their wives or girlfriends with them. They all wear the same plain garment—not black robes, but old red scrubs. Their hair often grows scraggly, as they—like monks—don’t have many mirrors. They don’t care what they look like. The food isn’t very flavorful. They’re cut off from what used to be their lives, their own hustles and habits.

Their contact with those outside—overpriced collect calls, the occasional letter—is limited. A good number of them spend a great deal of time praying, reading, writing, contemplating their lives on a level deeper than they would have outside these walls. They spend most of the day in small rooms called cells.

The most important and obvious difference, I tell them, is that the monks I’ve met choose to live this way.

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Smelling a Rat


Guest post by Suzanne M. Wolfe

About a year ago I felt an overpowering urge to say the “Our Father.” I’m still not sure why. I never knew my biological father, so I’ve always been indifferent to this prayer, the only prayer Jesus taught us. In the back of my mind I’d think: He’s not my father. I don’t have a father.

And my heart would be empty even as my mouth said the words.

Until that moment my habit had been to say part one of my prayers lying in bed before reading for an hour, then part two after I turned out the light. There was no mystical or theological reason for dividing up my prayers, sandwiching the secular (currently the novels of Dennis Lehane) between the sacred, albeit rote, words of the “Glory Be,” the “Hail Mary,” and the prayer for the dead.

I suspect it was like stopping halfway up the mountain, claiming to admire the view when it’s really all those damn cigarettes making my heart thump like a jackhammer, my lungs wheeze like a broken bellows.

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Detonating Jonah

jonahWhen news broke this summer that Sunni extremists with ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, had blown up the tomb of Jonah after capturing the Iraqi city of Mosul, the shockwaves left a piece of me in the rubble from halfway across the world in Brooklyn.

Not that the trail of massacres, beheadings and forced expulsions by ISIS haven’t made for far more shocking news before and since then, as the gruesome executions of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff recently attest.

I can watch the online video of Jonah’s tomb blown to bits in a cloud of dust; but the beheadings of Foley and Sotloff I cannot.

Yet when I watch the former, I am revolted and I cringe. There it is one second, there it isn’t the next: the alleged resting place of my beloved Jonah.

Our beloved Jonah, inasmuch as he is equally revered in Islam as he is in the Judeo-Christian tradition: the Qur’an includes its own version of the book, “Yunus,”and Muhammad is said to have proclaimed, “One should not say that I am better than Jonah.”

Hence the “tears and anger” in Mosul, as reported by The New York Times, where the Sunni population’s initial embrace of liberation by ISIS from centralized Shiite oppression in Baghdad gave way first to resentment, and then resistance, as the city’s trove of treasured holy sites and rich tradition of interfaith compatibility were destroyed. [Read more...]

The Gift of Gravy Days

Education_Article_WildflowerMeadows_02Well, I’ve reached my three score and ten years.

It must sound positively ancient to those of you who are half my age—or even two-thirds. I know that when I was in my thirties, forties, even fifties, seventy sounded old: not only over the hill but way down toward the bottom of the other side.

“Seventy is the sum of our years, or eighty if we are strong,” sings Psalm 90. I’m not strong. I have a chronic form of leukemia that could carry me off any day. In fact, when I was diagnosed with it just before my sixtieth birthday, my doctor said with an upbeat, encouraging voice “You can expect to live ten more years!”—which at the time sounded like a lot. So I had scientific confirmation that the psalmist’s sum of seventy years was indeed my allotment.

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The Gay Science and Nietzsche’s Prayer Rant

There’s a place in Nietzsche’s The Gay Science where he really lets Christians have it. Section 125 of Book III of The Gay Science is, in fact, where Nietzsche makes one of his famous pronouncements about the death of God.

Nietzsche puts the claim that God is dead into the mouth of a “madman.” “Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition?” the madman asks, “Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.”

But the Section that struck me most recently is not about the death of God. It is, instead, Section 128 of Book III of The Gay Science. The heading of this Section is, “The Value of Prayer.”

“Prayer,” Nietzsche opens, “has been invented for those people who never really have thoughts of their own and who do not know any elevation of the soul or at least do not notice it when it occurs: what are they to do at sacred sites and in all significant situations in life, where calm and some sort of dignity are called for?”

It’s a good question. What are we to do at sacred sites and in significant situations that call for some dignity? How do we keep calm? How do we know what to do when we want to confront the sacred? [Read more...]