The ten science fiction novels that affected me most

(Written in response to a reminder from Ryan Groff.)

These are not necessarily the best ten science fiction novels (in my opinion). They are the ten science fiction novels that affected me most significantly when I read them. And as a result, they are the ten such novels I care about most. I am grateful to their authors for the gift of their imagination, and for the ways in which each of these novels sparked my imagination, sometimes with profound personal consequences.

Orphans of the Sky, by Robert A. Heinlein

This may or may not have been the first science fiction novel I ever read. I read it in its Afrikaans translation, as Beheerkamer Onbeman (Control Room Unattended). And re-read it and re-read it. Undoubtedly this is the book that lured me into the world of science fiction. The translation was published in 1972, and I would have first read it sometime between the ages of 8 and 10.

The Word for World is Forest, by Ursula K. Le Guin

A novel of colonialization, I sometimes wonder if this is not the most important book I ever read - at least when considering its effect on me. The Word for World is Forest turned my moral imagination upside down, and converted me from my cradle racism. It did not convert me to a particular alternative, but it cut my affections from their tribal roots and left me in search of new moorings. It was first published as a separate book in 1976, when I was around ten, which is when I remember reading it. (My gratitude to the librarians and VERY well-stocked school and public libraries of my birth town, Bloemfontein, is unbounded ... even though those libraries were open to whites only during my childhood.)

The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. Le Guin

Turned me into an anarchist for all of my teens. Published in 1974, I'm pretty sure I first read it after The Word for World is Forest, but certainly before I turned twelve.

I love all of Ursula Le Guin's work, but none of her other books affected me quite as much as these two, or earned as much of my affection.

Dune, by Frank Herbert

Inclined my teens toward ecological concerns and Zen Buddhism ... and perhaps, upon reflection, the messianism that resonated with the Jesus I subsequently found in the Gospels?

A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

Deepened my interest in the historical long term, the preservation of knowledge, and the cultural contribution of monastic communities. My second-favourite religiously themed science fiction novel of all time ...

The Sparrow and Children of God by Mary Doria Russell

... with The Sparrow and Children of God (counted as one book for the purposes of this list) remaining my all-time (harrowing!) favourite.

Neuromancer by William Gibson

Mostly because it introduced me to Gibson's writing, which I've grown to like more and more as each novel inched towards a "speculative fiction of the very recent past" that I resonated with most when I first read ...

Pattern Recognition by William Gibson

Also, Cayce Pollard will always be the best-dressed science fiction character ever.

The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson

Partly, because it was a great escape-read during a year in which I could not escape the horror of my birth country's history (because I was working for South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission at the time).

2312 and Shaman by Kim Stanley Robinson

Counted as one, these novels of the future and the far past confirmed my Long Now-like concern for the long run (but hey: Isaiah 60). And nudged me closer to serious thinking about what is perennially human and what is historically malleable.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Difficult enough?

From Peter Sacks' elegy "For Richard Turner" (a poem that has long been important to me):

You wrote on the back page of my last essay
('Political Education in The Republic')
'Good ideas, but style too literary.
Use of images evades the final point.'
 

When I left,
you thought me still evasive,
trying to pass off
my own fear of suffering
as a form of wisdom.
I'd said, 'There's nothing left
for us, not even martyrdom.'
You smiled:
'At least stick to political
philosophy. Remember,
literature's too easy.'

[...]

Long after midnight,
walking through the pines
into a thin sea wind,
startled as each line of water
shatters in the dark,
I half-prepare to meet you
further up the shore;
as though your dying meant
they'd only driven you out
to lead a half-life
here in the wind, this walk
between the water and pines
of another country.

Richard, if I keep to words,
believing nothing in our history
will make this right,
will what I say at last
be difficult enough for you?

What I wrote in 2017

A list of links to writing of mine that have been published so far in 2017, in reverse chronological order:

"Who Is My Neighbour?" Convivium Magazine. March 31, 2017

"Re-seeing Religious Resentment." Convivium Magazine. March 24, 2017

"Pure laine and Purim." Convivium Magazine. March 17, 2017

"Seeing Local. Looking Deep." Convivium Magazine. March 10, 2017

"Reaching Other Mothers." Convivium Magazine. March 9, 2017

"Giving Space." Convivium Magazine. February 24, 2017

"The Sidewalk View." Convivium Magazine. February 10, 2017

"To Wake Up the Heart." Convivium Magazine. February 8, 2017

"Goodbye NAFTA?" Providence Magazine. February 8, 2017

"Façades and Values." Convivium Magazine. January 25, 2017

"Hasidic Joy in Outremont." Convivium Magazine. January 18, 2017

"Following Jesus, politically." Christian Courier. January 9, 2017

For my published writing before 2017, see "What I wrote in 2016."

 

 

What I wrote in 2016

A list of links to writing of mine that got published in 2016, in reverse chronological order

[UNDER CONSTRUCTION]

"Across Our Backyard Fences." Convivium Magazine. December 21, 2016

"Sharing a Long Obedience." Convivium Magazine. December 14, 2016

"Two Sides to Outremont." Convivium Magazine. December 7, 2016

"Is There Hope for Africa?" Providence Magazine. September 13, 2016

"Smite Them, Jesus?" Providence Magazine. July 22, 2016

"Words Matter, the Right Words Matter Most." Providence Magazine. July 6, 2016

"Green Nukes for Africa." Providence Magazine. June 29, 2016

"Say now Shibboleth." Providence Magazine. June 22, 2016

"Which Africa Will Rise?" Providence Magazine. April 22, 2016

"Trump and Africa." Providence Magazine. April 15, 2016

"Chopping Ugly Heads off Stiffened Necks." Providence Magazine. April 8, 2016

"The Conservation of the Republican Party." Providence Magazine. March 28, 2016

"An African Cheer for the Obama Doctrine." Providence Magazine. March 18, 2016

"Other than Empire." Providence Magazine. March 15, 2016

"God, the Republic, and 60 Billion Hours of World of Warcraft." Providence Magazine. March 8, 2016

"Pig Blood and Glowing Sand." Providence Magazine. March 8, 2016. (Reprinted in Convivium Magazine, March 9, 2016)

"Turn to Africa." Providence Magazine. January 28, 2016

"Six Challenges Facing Africa in 2016." Providence Magazine. January 20, 2016. (My most-read article at Providence in 2016.)

"Why I Am More Optimistic Than Ever." Providence Magazine. January 8, 2016

For some of my earlier published writing, see the archives at academia.edu, Comment magazine, Providence magazine,  and Capital Commentary. And for my writing in 2017, see here.

 

 

Invested attention

Prayer is paradigmatic for practice: how I pray is how I come to live.

Prayer, I believe, is an intentional investment of my attention into what matters most. Simone Weil wrote in her First and Last Notebooks that, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” In the posthumous collection of her notes, Gravity and Grace, she expands: “Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love. Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer. If we turn our mind toward the good, it is impossible that little by little the whole soul will not be attracted thereto in spite of itself.”

If prayer is the intentional investment of my attention into what matters most, then prayer takes place at the pioneering edge of my becoming. However I practice the intentional investment of my attention into whatever matters most to me, these profound commitments draw the whole of my self toward themselves in such practices. To a significant extent I come to bear the imprint of what matters most to me, in and through these practices.

Snap  

Snap  

My regular practices, the practices that become habit, shape who I am. Sometimes it is a little thing: I often snap my fingers when I walk. It is a quirk I inherited, unconsciously, from my father. It is not a big deal in terms of who I am perceived to be, except that it signifies a very important connection: a connection to the people who brought me into the world – a small hint of a not-insignificant part of my sense of who I am. Sometimes it is a big thing: For me, the most important reminders of what matters most to me arrive daily, morning and night, in my prayers, and weekly, in the common worship of a Sunday morning’s sung Eucharist or afternoon’s Evensong in the Anglican community where I worship.

Where do I best invest my attention?

An acquaintance recently posted a passage from Henri Nouwen’s Bread for the Journey on Facebook: “Many voices ask for our attention. There is a voice that says, ‘Prove that you are a good person.’ Another voice says, ‘You’d better be ashamed of yourself.’ There also is a voice that says, ‘Nobody really cares about you,’ and one that says, ‘Be sure to become successful, popular, and powerful.’ But underneath all these often very noisy voices is a still, small voice that says, ‘You are my Beloved, my favor rests on you.’ That’s the voice we need most of all to hear. To hear that voice, however, requires special effort; it requires solitude, silence, and a strong determination to listen. That’s what prayer is. It is listening to the voice that calls us ‘my Beloved.’” 

 

Why pray?

Why pray? I consider prayer to be an intentional investment of attention into what matters most. As such it is a practice in which every human person engages sometimes, in some or other way. We attend to what matters most because that is what humans do: to be human is to care, to love, to desire, to commit ourselves, to have a point of view with regard to what matters.

An improvisation on Psalm 103 by Jim Cotter in his prayer book, Out of the Silence ... 

An improvisation on Psalm 103 by Jim Cotter in his prayer book, Out of the Silence ... 

In their book on “using the human sciences to solve your toughest business problems,” The Moment of Clarity (Boston, 2014), Christian Madsbjerg and Mikkel B. Rasmussen write, “Humans are human because they have a perspective: they care about things. One might call it our ability to give a damn. And it is this quality that allows us to determine what matters and where we stand. … The ability to have a perspective—to respond to what matters and what is meaningful—is at the heart of humanity.”

The philosopher James K.A. Smith writes in his little book Your Are What You Love (Grand Rapids, 2016) that, “We are what we want. Our wants and longing and desires are at the core of our identity, the wellspring from which our actions and behavior flow. … You are what you love because you live toward what you want.”

Devoting attention to what matters most takes many different forms. To some extent how we devote attention to what we really care about is shaped by what it is that we really care about. For someone who cares profoundly about the beauty of wild places merely talking or thinking about such places is not an adequate way in which to devote attention to that beauty, but hiking in such places might be. For someone who loves their country deeply a small way of devoting attention to that love may be singing their national anthem while a bigger way may be devoting several years of their life to military service.

Conventionally religious people like me enjoy the benefits of the accumulated devotional wisdom of ancient and living traditions. There is a plethora of ways in which to pay attention to the love of God that most deeply moves me. I believe that I am being drawn into the loving embrace of God, and that the love of God is the primary force shaping the story of my life. But I am not always attentive to this reality. I experience those practices that afford me opportunities for the intentional devotion of my attention to the love of God as gifts—graces—that suffuse an awareness of that love throughout all of my life. For me reading, singing, and saying prayers, in the conventional sense, are among the most significant of such practices.

 

 

Work Reads

(A continually updated list)

Recent reads:

Power, Samantha. Chasing the Flame: One Man's Fight to Save the World [biography of Sergio Vieira de Mello]

Landler, Mark. Alter Egos: Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and the Twilight Struggle Over American Power

Burnett, Bill, and Dave Evans. Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life

Smith, James K.A. You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit

Ajzenstat, Janet. Discovering Confederation: A Canadian's Story

Miller, Jamie. An African Volk: The Apartheid Regime and Its Search for Survival

Currently reading:

Peterson, Eugene. Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity

Sweetman, Robert. Tracing the Lines: Spiritual Exercise and the Gesture of Christian Scholarship

Giliomee, Hermann. Die Laaste Afrikanerleiers

Miller, Paul D. American Power and Liberal Order: A Conservative Internationalist Grand Strategy

Countryman, L. William. Living on the Border of the Holy: Renewing the Priesthood of All

Harris, Joseph. Rewriting: How To Do Things With Texts

Next reads:

Bennett, Kyle David. Practices of Love: Spiritual Disciplines for the Life of the World

Wear, Michael. Reclaiming Hope

Welby, Justin. Dethroning Mammon: Making Money Serve Grace

Freeland, Chrystia. Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else

Lane, Belden, C. The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality

Ward, Graham. The Politics of Discipleship: Becoming Postmaterial Citizens.

Moyn, Samuel. Christian Human Rights.

Coakley, Sarah. The New Ascetism: Sexuality, Gender and the Quest for God.

Lewis, Harold T. A Church for the Future: South Africa as the Crucible for Anglicanism in a New Century

Williams, Rowan. Being Disciples: Essentials of the Christian Life

Behar, Ruth. The Vulnerable Observor: Anthropology That Breaks Your Heart

Weiss, Robert S. Learning From Strangers: The Art and Method of Qualitative Interview Studies

Emerson, Robert M. et al. Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes

Dreyfus, Hubert L. Skillful Coping: Essays on the Phenomenology of Everyday Perception

Keane, Webb. Ethical Life: Its Natural and Social Histories

Chait, Jonathan. Audacity: How Barack Obama Defied His Critics and Created a Legacy That Will Prevail

Bakewell, Sarah. At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails with Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Others

Perennial references:

Byock, Ira. Dying Well

Garber, Steven. Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good

Hall, Donald. Life Work

Heifetz, Ronald A., Marty Linsky, Alexander Grashow. The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World

Ibarra, Herminia. Working Identity: Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career

Meilaender, Gilbert C. (ed). Working: Its Meaning and Its Limits

Parks, Sharon Daloz. Big Questions, Worthy Dreams: Mentoring Emerging Adults in Their Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Faith

Parks, Sharon Daloz. Leadership Can Be Taught: A Bold Approach for a Complex World

Seerveld, Calvin. Rainbows for the Fallen World

Whyte, David. Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity

Williams, Dean. Real Leadership

And:   

My working bookshelf circa September 2016  

My working bookshelf circa September 2016  

Implicated

There is no escaping our implicatedness in the events of our time, the history of the communities in which we belong, the formation and sustenance of the institutions that make possible the lives we lead - for good and for ill. Becoming an Anglican is an acknowledgment of such implicatedness on my part.  

 

Retired regimental colours, Christ Church, Montreal  

Retired regimental colours, Christ Church, Montreal  

In addition to the steadying rhythms of Anglican liturgy and the sacramental welcome of Anglican worship to people in their genderedness, the third of my three primary reasons for becoming an Anglican has to do with the flawed character of this Christian tradition. Few Christian faith communities are quite as implicated in the politics of their contexts as the Anglican communion. The very emergence of the Anglican communion from Roman Catholicism is in part the result of the dynastic politics of England's then monarch, Henry VIII. The presence of Anglicanism around the globe today is thoroughly interwoven with the history of English imperialism. I wager that there is not a single aspect of Anglicanism that is not, in a thorough-going manner, the result of the historical politicization of ecclesiastical life and theological conflict.

By becoming Anglican I am setting myself up to be reminded, time and again, that no faith community, no religious tradition, can exist without being and becoming implicated in political history. The primitivist fantasy of a pre-Constantinian Christian church free of any political entanglements is not true to how we humans are, always, in the world. As someone who has lived the entirety of my life at the intersection of religion and politics, becoming Anglican is a way of keeping myself intentionally alert to the ever-fraught character of that intersection. And as a Christian who is persuaded that just war teachings offer the most accurate available understanding of the relationships among church, state, war, and peace, participating in Remembrance Sunday choral eucharists at Christ Church, Montreal, in 2015 and 2016 provided an annual opportunity to consider these relationships in the context of this world of sorrow and suffering.

My great-grandfather, Johannes Mattheus Strauss, circa 1900.  

My great-grandfather, Johannes Mattheus Strauss, circa 1900.  

The political implicatedness of Anglicanism is not merely of intellectual interest to me. The very first Sunday I worshiped at Christ Church cathedral in Montreal, while drinking coffee in the baptistry after the service, I looked up and noticed the retired regimental colours of the Canadian Grenadier Guards, for whom the cathedral is their regimental church. Embroidered onto these colours are the battle honours of the Guards, and these include "South Africa, 1899-1900," commemorating what I, as an Afrikaner, grew up to know as the Boer War or Second War of Liberation. My great-grandfather, Johannes Mattheus Strauss, fought in that war (digital copies of his diary and war letters are among my more treasured possessions) on the side of the two Boer republics, against the aggression of the British Empire, and as such also against the Canadian Grenadier Guards. Worshiping alongside the Canadian Grenadier Guards is, in a way, loving my enemies.

Five things I love about living in Outremont in 2016

I moved into a tiny apartment in Outremont, a beautiful borough of Montreal on the other side of Mont Royal from the old original city, in August of 2016. It is so easy to fall in love with Outremont! Here are five things I love about living in Outremont, given a handful of months of experience.

 

Parc Outremont

Parc Outremont

1. Parc Outremont

Parc Outremont is just up Avenue Outremont from my apartment. It's the perfect neighbourhood park: big enough that there is something to walk through or around, small enough to feel nestled into the neighbourhood, old enough to have many big trees, maintained adequately enough not to be too shabby for comfort, providing enough seating for old and young, containing a fenced playground for children and lots of lawn for them to run around on, and lit well enough to allow for night-time walking. (And, for serious exercise, I can walk another block or two and then complete lose myself on Mont Royal.)

Caprese Salad: all ingredients from Les 5 Saisons  

Caprese Salad: all ingredients from Les 5 Saisons  

2. Les 5 Saisons

A block away from my apartment, along Avenue Bernard, is the store where I buy almost all of my groceries, Les 5 Saisons. It is the first time in my life that I can recall being able to get hold of nearly everything I need for preparing meals within fewer than five minutes' worth of walking. In addition to this convenience, the selection in the store is perfect for someone with my food preferences without being outrageously expensive.

Les 5 Saisons is for me the symbol of Outremont being an urban village, allowing for the city comforts celebrated in David Sucher's book of the same title. It is no surprise that Les 5 Saisons in Outremont obeys the three rules David Sucher identifies for generating walkable neighbourhoods!

For gin, wine, and whisky I can still stay in Outremont, walking about ten minutes to thesurprisingly well-stocked local SAQ (I have been thoroughly surprised by finding that they sometimes sell my favourite gins, St. George's Terroir and Barr Hill). Kitchen equipment? Les Touilleurs. And for meat I walk for just less than half an hour once or twice a month, into the Mile End, to the Boucherie Lawrence.

Gin-Chambord-ginger-syrup cocktail, Brasserie Bernard 

Gin-Chambord-ginger-syrup cocktail, Brasserie Bernard 

 

3. The bar at Brasserie Bernard

Neither my calendar nor my budget allows me to sit at the bar of the Brasserie Bernard as often as I would like. The Brasserie Bernard is not a Michelin-starred establishment (if I remember correctly Montreal had only three of those when I last checked, and I haven't eaten in any of them), but it nonetheless is, for me, the Outremont symbol of city magic - that thrill of elegance, spectacle, and public sociability that cannot really be had other than in large cities. Across the street is the Théâtre Outremont. For three blocks along Avenue Bernard it is all shops and restaurants, and in the summer the restaurants spill out onto sidewalk patios that just buzz. (But my favourite thing about the Brasserie Bernard is the bartender, who makes her own cocktail syrups and garnishes at home.)

City Hall, Outremont  

City Hall, Outremont  

4. City Hall

Outremont was an independent municipality until 2000, and now is a small borough of the city of Montreal. It has its own borough council, with four councilors and a mayor, and it is represented on the city council of Montreal by its mayor. As best as I can tell, this is the subsidiarity of Catholic social thought in action - many decisions are made at the borough level, and the citizens of the borough are closely involved by means of elections and referendums. (I recently started writing a series of short articles on the public life of the borough for the magazine Convivium, the first installment of which you can read here.) This kind of close involvement in the public life of one's neighbourhood is, as best as I can tell, one of the most meaningful ways in which to be a political creature, and it makes me very happy to be able to observe it in action.

Saint-Viateur  

Saint-Viateur  

5. Saint-Viateur, one of the borough's Catholic parish churches

There is of course also the famous bagel shop of the same name, but this parish church is the second most obvious indication of the reality of deep religious conviction in Outremont: the first being the dress of the large Hasidic community in the borough. Outremont is like a little laboratory for the intersections of religion and politics, faith communities and public life, church/synagogue and state. Since these intersections are very important in my life, including my journalism and scholarship, I feel privileged to be a participant-observer in Outremont borough religious and political life.

Sacramental welcome

If my becoming an Anglican were just about the steadying rhythms of the liturgy, Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism would have been paths I would have considered. 

Christ Church, Montreal  

Christ Church, Montreal  

I have been profoundly moved by the Antiochian and Ukrainian Eastern rite worship services I’ve attended. And yet worshiping in Eastern churches feels to me like indulging in the exotic – my inner experience of their worship more like an intrigued tourism, less like an attentive awe. What connects me with worshipers in Eastern churches matters more than what makes me feel like a welcomed stranger – but, a stranger – in their midst. If I had no other options (and some other time I should think out loud about church and choice) I would have accommodated myself to a life of worship in Eastern churches with delight and gratitude.

The public library is perhaps to be blamed for my finding myself more at home in Anglican than Eastern worship. As an Afrikaner I am no more English than I am Arab or Greek or Ukrainian. (I’ll have to say more sometime in the future about the reality that English is the language of the enemy for me, as the great-grandchild of an Orange Free State republican soldier in what my ethnic community continues to remember as the Second War of Liberation – the Second Boer War, in British imperial historiography.) A childhood spent in British novels has, I suppose, given me an English imagination.

Why not Roman Catholic, then? The aesthetics of the Anglican Reformation as it is paradigmatically expressed in the Book of Common Prayer is certainly part of my answer to that question, but here’s the real reason: I want to worship in a church where both men and women may be priests and I want to worship in a church that recognizes the blessedness of both singleness and marriage, the blessedness of both different and same sex marriages. In the Anglican Church in Canada the priestly vocation of women as much as men have been recognized for something like four decades. In the continuation of a legacy inherited from Catholicism, Anglicanism has always recognized and nurtured the blessedness of a celibate singleness, partly so in its continuation of the sodality of religious orders. And in Canadian Anglicanism there is at least the prospect of same sex marriage and, with that prospect in view, no less of a welcome to the sacraments for people in same sex relationships than for anyone else.

Am I right in wanting to worship in such a church? My short answer is: I don’t know. (I am unflinchingly certain of far less now that I have turned fifty than I had been at forty or thirty … and I cannot remember anything with regard to which I was not unflinchingly certain at twenty! I thoroughly trust in the love of God; I gratefully believe that Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again; I passionately yearn for God’s renewal of all things in Christ and through the Holy Spirit; I am quite convinced that the Christian Bible is a trustworthy revelation of God to humanity, though lisping in its significance – as John Calvin suggested – and unyielding to efforts seeking to exhaustively master its meaning; I’m quite certain that I’ll be able to confess the Apostle’s Creed without amendment for the remainder of my life. But beyond this handful of durable affirmations, I am quite open to persuasion, however vehemently I may express my many opinions.)

I doubt that what is good, right, and fitting is merely a matter of my own personal preference or opinion. I wager that what is good, right, and fitting can – within limits – be known. And without doubt I am quite frequently wrong about what is good, right, and fitting. It should come as no surprise that one of my very favourite songs is Paul Simon’s “American Tune,” which starts with a confession I hold dear as my own: many’s the time I’ve been mistaken. (Here’s hoping that my Christian friends and I will continue to consider one another to be fellow followers of Jesus even as we disagree – perhaps learning from someone like Alan Jacobs.)

But I don’t believe I am wrong, broadly speaking, in wanting to worship in a church that ordains men and women to the priesthood and that marries couples of different sexes and of the same sex. I am far from ready to make biblical hermeneutical or ethical arguments on either ordination or marriage, even as I believe such arguments are necessary. For now it is enough for me that I see sanctifying lives being lived by my friends in same sex marriages, as much as any other of my fellow believers, and that I am blessed in worship to receive the eucharist, be led in prayer, and hear the good news of Jesus proclaimed by women and men alike. In this setting I feel more truly human, welcome in all of my own frailty, persistently confronted with the holy and loving Jesus.

 

 

48. I want to pray the Psalms

Ambrose of Milan called the Psalter a gymnasium for the soul. John Calvin called it a mirror. John Goldingay called it 150 things we know we can say to God.  

 

IMG_9881.JPG

It's more complicated (I sang Psalms every Sunday in my childhood, for example) but let's say I fell in love with the Psalms in the earlier half of the 1990s, because of Eugene Peterson's book Working the Angles . I had been having difficulty praying - difficulty with wanting to pray - and Peterson showed me the way of the Psalms, which resolved my difficulties. Maybe a decade later my favourite bookseller, Byron Burger, recommended Jim Cotter's Out of the Silence (a prayerbook that includes improvisations on all 150 psalms) that has subsequently ensured that my daily rhythm of praying these poems never become mere rote. 

49. I want Cheetos

Not everything I want is good for me. Far from it.  

 

Vice.  

Vice.  

"Any reflexive response to stress and anxiety, whether conscious or not, is a form of addiction. The chief motive of any addiction is, of course, to help one not feel what in fact one has already been feeling. Breaking the tyranny of the addiction will require one to feel the pain that the addiction defends against. No wonder, then, that addictive patterns have such staying power as flimsy, faltering defenses against primal wounds." (James Hollis)

 

Steadying rhythms

I am becoming an Anglican. Starting this Advent I am joining a small group of fellow proto-Anglicans at Christ Church cathedral in Montreal, meeting for worship and conversation as we prepare to be received into the church during Easter. At this time in my life very few things so encourage me as the prospect of formally settling into the steadying rhythms of Anglican worship. 

Christ Church Montreal  

Christ Church Montreal  

On the day I write this there arrives in my apartment mailbox the most recent print issue of the Christian Century (November 23, 2016) and in its pages I read this by the theologian (until recently unknown to me) Sarah Coakley: “I strategically dispossess myself to the Spirit’s blowing where it will into all truth; just as, in prayer each day, I try to practice that same dispossession to the Spirit’s calling me more deeply into the life of Christ, bracing myself for the bumps and lurches and surprises I have been led precisely by scripture to expect.” “Bumps and lurches and surprises”: yes. 

The past several years have been a turbulence of catastrophes for me, in nearly every part of my life. Unexpected dizziness and exhaustion resulted in a drawn-out comedy of misdiagnoses of the cause of my anemia (blood samples were sent off to the Centers for Disease Control in fear of Ebola; a false positive test had my hematologist suggest to me that I get my affairs in order, given my chronic myeloid leukemia; neither ebola nor cancers of any kind turned out to be the issue), concluding at long last in a successful surgery. My failure to correctly assess institutional expectations and align my efforts with them (if my current understanding of the events is not again at an oblique with reality) cost me a job that was very dear to me, and plunged me into what has now been more than two years of underemployment and financial misadventure. And worst of all, a lifetime of responding with avoidance and accommodation to what I experience as emotional overwhelmment in my closer relationships reached its nadir in divorce.  

Navigating this nasty turbulence has only been possible for me because of two constants: the kindness of people who care for me, and a daily (or near-daily) cardio-respiratory workout in what Ambrose of Milan called the gymnasium of the Psalms. The poetry of the Psalms sometimes offers me solace, sometimes provides me with a language for my grief, confusion, and disappointment, and sometimes draws my attention away from self-pity towards empathy with others different from me in their fears, hopes, and joys. Almost as important as the substance of this poetry, however, is the very cadence of daily prayer. The mere act of daily prayer established and sustains a slight but significant order in the midst of my disarray. 

My experience of the daily praying of the Psalms as a life-vest is what alerted me to my need for a life-boat, a somewhat more encompassing array of steadying rhythms. I arrived in Montreal intent on becoming an Anglican, and worshipping at Christ Church cathedral since has confirmed that intention. I suppose I am discovering that I can echo Alan Jacobs’s confession: “I cannot possibly overstate what a gift the ancient liturgies and the ancient calendar of the Church have been to me. They have quite literally made it possible for me to be a follower of Jesus.”   

The Sunday morning choral Eucharist at the cathedral is practiced in an unhurried manner and, as the preparation and convivial enjoyment of slow food does, it unhurries me, slows me down to a pace at which I can truly invest my attention and digest what I experience. The liturgy savours each of its many parts – songs, readings, a sermon, the eating of bread and drinking of wine. Each part is brought into high relief by being surrounded with bell-rung silences. Time is further slowed down by processions – at the beginning of the service, at the departure of the children, at the reading of the Gospel, at the conclusion of the service – at the pace of a flâneur’s promenade.  

The weekly cadence of my Sunday morning participation in the Eucharist, in combination with the daily cadence of my praying of the Psalms, is bringing an articulation to my days that resonates in my imagination with the poetry at the very beginning of the Christian Scriptures, affording me an experience of my own time as being hosted within the hospitality of God, similarly to how the entire cosmos is portrayed as being hosted within that divine hospitality in Genesis. And then the grand annual rhythm of the Christian year, from the first Sunday of Advent through the Reign of Christ Sunday, further articulates my personal experience of time, not only as an individual, but in community with the cathedral congregation … and with followers of Jesus around the world and throughout history annis Domini.

50. I want Stability Sensor pens

For years I've invited students in my classes and participants in my workshops to make lists of 50 things they love. The exercise has always been an enjoyable and imagination-provoking start to rich conversations about what matters most ... and the question of what we love has proven a helpful springboard into a set of questions vital to making sense of our lives: Who am I? Where do I belong? What do I believe? What are the possibilities and constraints afforded by my time and place? What is to be done? 

In recent years the question has become even more important to me, in part because of my personal failures and disappointments in love, and in part because of its significance in books I've been reading. (I blame Heidegger and Augustine.)  

Stabilo Sensor pens. Still my favorites.  

Stabilo Sensor pens. Still my favorites.  

I like how Christian Madsbjerg and Mikjel Rasmussen write about the significance of what we love in their book The Moment of Clarity:   

 "Our greatest asset as humans [has] nothing to do with our ability to follow rules. Humans are human because [we] have a perspective: [we] care about things. One might call it our ability to give a damn. And it is this ability that allows us to determine what matters and where we stand. ... 

 "The ability to have a perspective - to respond to what matters and what is meaningful - is at the heart of humanity ... . A perspective implies you have prioritized certain things - relevant things - and by consequence let some things go. ... What we can do is respond to what calls us. We can find ourselves committed to a perspective."

Recently, in the weeks around my turning 50, I've been reading James K. A. Smith's You Are What You Love. Smith states his book's thesis in its title and nuances it in various ways throughout its text: "We are what we want. Our wants and longings and desires are at the core of our identity, the wellspring from which our actions and behavior flow. ... think of the heart as the fulcrum of your most fundamental longings - a visceral, subconscious orientation to the world. ... To be human is to be on a quest. ... You are what you love because you live toward what you want. ... You are what you love, and you make what you want."

Reading these books in the context of personal and professional turmoil has complicated the question of what I love, and so I will explore that question in these considerations. But, with a twist. In the next months (or however long it takes), I will be asking myself what I love and slowly make a new list of 50 things, but phrasing the question, not in terms of what I already have and love, but in terms of what I want - that for which I yearn, that towards which I am reaching and striving. And then to ask myself what it means that I want what I want.

Starting very concretely, with what is immediately at hand: when my current pen runs out of ink, I want my next pen to be a Stabilo Sensor, with black or blue ink.

I have been writing with Stabilo Sensor pens for more than a decade and a half. I don't remember quite why I first started writing with them, but I know that I love how they nestle in my hand, how their sprung tips flow over paper, how easily and clearly and evenly their ink flows ... and the sheer familiarity of them. I must admit not having pondered the implications of wanting to write with Stabilo Sensor pens much ... after all, these are pens designed in Germany that I buy in Canada or America ... and I have no idea where they are manufactured, or where the raw materials are sourced that are used in their manufacture. Even the smallest of my wants, like these pens, are woven into a complex ecology of social, economic, and political interactions: interactions that matter, and that make up the infrastructure of my desires and my actions.

Questions and Practices

What kinds of practices help us to keep going when the world reveals its harshness to us? How do I keep going when it is hard? How do I start over when I've messed up, given up, got crushed, lost my way? What kinds of practices help us to keep seeking the global common good, when the good seems far, vague, and unattainable? How do I care for what seems beyond my reach?

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