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Archive for May, 2017

America used to be great. I mean, really great. Immigrants flocked by the boatload to be welcomed in her open arms, whether they were huddled, tired, poor or disenfranchised. They came for the abundant resources and the free society which made those resources widely available. They brought their vigor, their ambition, their creativity and the necessary skills to make something for themselves in this rich land of opportunity. And make something they did.

Centuries advanced and times changed, but America today is still pretty great. As far as hegemonic superpowers to dominate the landscape of global politics, the world could do much much worse. One needn’t look far through the pages of history to see that.

But as time marches on, the great American pie gets divided into more and more slices, as more and more people gather around the table to claim their share. So the chances of staking a claim, and the opportunities for really making something, grow smaller and smaller. And the further this pie is partitioned, the deeper the divisions run, and the less benevolent this world superpower will become.

On the face of American politics, we can see the furled brows, the clenched jaws, the deep divisions. One side wants to restore that lost past, revive that land of opportunity, and make the country great again. Another side maintains that no restoration is necessary, that thanks to recent health care reforms and the expansion of free trade, America is now as great as ever. Rather than looking back to a more glorious yesterday, these partisans can’t stop thinking about tomorrow, just like they did 20 years ago.

Even if you’ve spent the last two or three decades sequestered in a bubble—whether it’s a financially-induced bubble of complaisant detachment or a confirmation biased bubble of one-sided news consumption—you’ve probably been aware of the economic strains associated with the shrinking pie described above. The world’s seemingly inexhaustible store of resources turns out to be precariously finite. And for the first time in history, broad majorities of Americans are facing the real prospect of living in a less prosperous society than their parents. The opportunity curve has peaked, and the view from the top is horribly unsettling.

In this state of collective vertigo, we need someone to blame, because the thought of failure is anathema to the America psyche. The idea that you could work hard, do your best, and end up empty-handed is unthinkable. For hundreds of years, America enjoyed a uniquely privileged position, with all the bounty of the New World ripe for the plunder. And consequently they have no strong tradition of the noble peasant, the wise hermit or the tragic hero, that you find in every other world culture.

In “Death of a Salesman”, the singular literary example of a national tragedy, Willy Loman, at the end of his long career, laments not having made something of himself. A fantastic play, to be sure, but do we really identify with Loman, the way we can empathize with a despondent serf in a short story from Tolstoy, for example? Or do we merely pity him, because he lacked ambition, amounted to nothing, and then lived to regret it?

The story of someone with a vision, who tries to accomplish something great, but fails, does not jive with American mythology. And the national psyche is not equipped to deal with it. We grew up with Oliver Twist, Little Orphan Annie and Elvis Presley. So we look around today and see all the signs of a psychological breakdown in a society that just doesn’t know how to cope. On the right we see anger and denial, on the left we see denial and depression. And if anyone speaks rationally of acceptance, their voice is all but silenced.

In spite all this, I still recommend acceptance. Meanwhile, America elects people to the highest office who kick and scream like bad-mannered toddlers when things don’t go their way. When the going gets tough, the country chooses a loud-mouthed bully to represent them, while generosity and benevolence fall out of fashion. And as we saw last week in Montana, body-slamming the opposition now meets with greater public approval than the weak policy of tolerance.

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What is the relationship between matter and spirit? What is the relation between the will to self-preservation and the will toward sacred atonement? Here’s an answer, where you may or may not expect it.

Jesus at the Home of Martha and Mary

As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”

“Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-42)

Here we have one of the best known and most frequently cited anecdotes from the New Testament. Typically, the story is read as a lesson in discernment, in distinguishing the righteous from the unrighteous, the holy from the impious. But the passage is not without controversy, and interpretations vary widely. For the line that separates the wicked from the virtuous is hardly as clear as the distinction between Martha and Mary. Indeed, the very subtlety of that distinction is the crux around which this fable revolves.

It should come as no surprise that Mary, who stoops down low, by Jesus’ feet, should be exalted higher and presented as the sister with greater virtue and sublimity. Variations on this theme recur throughout the Gospels, most notably in the parable of the Prodigal Son and the story of the sinful woman who anoints Jesus’ feet with perfume.

What fewer interpretations appreciate however, in their need to draw a strict line between right and wrong, between heaven and earth, is the importance of Martha and Mary being sisters and living together. Like the sets of brothers who star in so many ancient legends and myths, the housemates here do not represent separate and distinct characters, but the divergent aspects of a single individual.

Differentiating between good people and bad people is one thing, but the more important task is to recognize and acknowledge the sacred and the vulgar impulses within ourselves. Martha and Mary occupy the same house, just as their characteristics co-exist in a single personality. Maintaining a healthy household and a harmonious family, allegorically speaking, means tending a healthy psyche and balancing the circle of inner forces.

Martha tries to shame Mary for neglecting the cooking and cleaning, the daily duties of earthly living. Meanwhile, Jesus criticizes Martha for failing to attend to the “one thing needed,” the eternal matters of singular importance. In fact, genuine health requires both; we must be mindful of our material needs, but we must also remember the questions of ultimate importance.

For Jesus, the paragon of holy perfection, it’s easy to look down on those who bother themselves with the mundane duties and household chores. But for the rest of us, we would wallow in filth and starve if we simply ignored the housework and shrugged off our basic material needs. All too often though, we end up getting lost in the daily routine, consumed by worldly matters. And once our earthly pursuits have crowded out and supplanted our spiritual endeavors, then we have gone astray. As it’s been said, we cannot serve two masters.

What then is the genuine master? What is that “one thing needed,” which Mary looks after and Martha neglects, the one thing which cannot be named? That of course is the great question, and it must remain forever the question, because every time we name it, we think we own it. But we we do not. And so it slips a bit further from our grasp.

For one, that article of singular importance may be wisdom, or love. For another it may be justice, or motherhood. For the Greeks, these ideals had titles, like Hera, Athena, Aphrodite. These were their gods, which is another way of saying that these were the things that gave meaning and depth to their otherwise ordinary lives. These ideals were portrayed as  living and dynamic, capricious and ephemeral. And I think the Greeks were on to something here.

But Jesus was emphatic on this point, that Mary had made the right choice by directing her attention to the holy and the eternal, as personified in this text by Jesus himself. By the same token, he insisted that Martha, distracted by so many menial things, was missing out on the one thing she could not lose. And in order to understand and identify that singular thing, we must look deeply within ourselves.

Unless we take time to nourish the soul, the daily duties become mere motions, sterile and meaningless. Still, if we try to dwell exclusively in the astral and the eternal, we cannot expect to thrive or even survive in this world of objects. We can model ourselves after the great sages, but ultimately we cannot live like Alyosha Karamazov, always on that higher plain but never without a clean shirt and a fresh bite to eat in his hand. Concerning ourselves exclusively with the otherworldly, we are more likely to suffer the tragic fate of Prince Myshkin, to borrow another page from Dostoyevsky.

It’s not that Martha is up to no good. She’s not dabbling in witchcraft, she’s not obsessing over monetary gain or collecting trophies, and she’s certainly not acting out of selfishness or malice. She’s simply seeing that the kitchen is in good order and that a good lunch is properly prepared. These are hardly the actions of an audacious sinner. But these material concerns are respectfully inferior to Mary’s interest in the kingdom of god, in entering that realm where all things are connected as one.

To lead a healthy life, Mary and Martha each have their roles to play. We should invoke the spirit of both sisters, so that the two aspects can function together. But in order to be effective, we must render unto Martha what is Martha’s and render unto Mary what is Mary’s. When we are working in practical areas, we need to focus on doing that work properly. And when we strive to reach a higher plane of spiritual connectivity, our attention must be concentrated like Mary’s, and our minds must be free from the clutter and those ongoing to-do lists, the many things diverting Martha’s attention.

The house of Martha and Mary serves as the model for right mindfulness, right action, and proper balance. It’s critical to remain mindful of Martha, to tend the hearth, take out the garbage, and file your taxes. Grand ideas give us meaning and purpose, but they rarely put food on the table or shoes on your feet. At the same time, we ought to remember Maslov’s pyramid of needs. Once the basics have been provided for, we can—and should—move onward and upward. To give our lives real meaning, we must embark on that spiritual journey, humble ourselves before the vast and mysterious, and devote our attention to the highest ideals, that which cannot be touched or taken away.

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If you’d like to be an opera singer, you need to learn Italian. If you want to learn gourmet cooking, it might help to speak French. And if you want to study philosophy, theology and metaphysics, it would be useful to know some German. There’s no doubt, these fields of study were dominated by Germans for a good solid three or four centuries, from Luther to Leibniz, Hegel to Heidegger, Schopenhauer to Schleiermacher.

I recently spent a week in the central German city of Erfurt, where Martin Luther enjoys the status of a superhero, and you can’t throw a stone without hitting a church. I can attest this second fact from personal experience, as I toured the city with my two feisty youngsters.

Over the course of our ongoing walking tours of the east German city, I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to track down one particular house of worship known as the Predigerkirche, or the preacher’s church. For days, I circumambulated the historic Altstadt, longing to locate this semi-obscure monument, the Eckhart Door.

Long before Luther, the region’s best known church father was a country preacher by the name of Meister Eckhart (1260-1327). Or at least that’s the name by which we remember him some 700 years later. Eckhart’s reputation waxed and waned over the centuries, but around the turn of the 20th century, he enjoyed something of a revival, and today we recognize him as one of the premier religious mystics of the western tradition, alongside the likes of St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. You might think of him as Christianity’s equivalent of Rumi.

Among the countless statues and historic monuments in Germany however, there is hardly a mention of this 13th century sage. So when I discovered that there was Meister Eckhart door on the Predigerkirche, I headed straight over. Or at least I tried to head straight over.

Erfurt’s old city center, like any other European city center, consists of a tight network of short, narrow and circuitous alleys and passages. So it’s nigh impossible to move anywhere in a straight line. But move and meander I did, strolling past church after church. I worked my way around the Luther church, admired the partial remains of the Barefoot church, noted the unusually sparse architecture of a certain evangelical church, but the Eckhart door still eluded me.

After a couple days of this mild frustration, I was forced to consult my maze-like map in excruciating detail. Gradually I honed my search, until finally I zeroed in on the neatly concealed Predigerkirche. With both my children in tow, I began to circle the sprawling structure. Approaching from the back of the church, we made our way through the cloister and found ourselves in the courtyard of the seminary school. Stone walls and irons gates partitioned the chapel and the divinity school, but no sign of a door with any allusion of the illustrious medieval mystic.

Finally, on the opposite side, we found the main entrance to the church. But still no mention of the Meister. We looked to the left, we looked to the right, we looked up, we looked inside, but only the narrow foyer was open to visitors. The children were growing restless. I stood at the door and doubted the entire undertaking. Perhaps we should simply cut our losses and find ourselves some fresh baked pretzels instead. Always delicious, never elusive.

Then we rounded the other side, and lo and behold, the last possible door of the church, the absolute furthest corner from where our circumnavigation began: we had arrived. No fanfare, no throngs of foreign tourists waiting to take a picture, just me and my two kids, and a very heavy door engraved with a bible verse and the dates of Meister Eckhart’s life.

My daughter was so relieved. “Ok, let’s go in already,” she groaned.

“Oh, no,” I said. “It’s just a door. We can’t open it. The church is locked. It’s just a door.”

She was incredulous. I tried to point out the nice big bronze letters on the door. She was not impressed. And so we headed back, slightly fulfilled, slightly disappointed, and mostly just relieved that we could stop searching and get on with our lives.

But later that day we passed a tourist information office, and I found a very small booklet about Eckhart, with a cover photo of the Bodendenkmal, the floor monument. Really? Was there yet another Eckhart monument to go and find?

As it turns out, a newer and even more meaningful memorial to Meister Eckhart covers the ground at the front door of the Predigerkirche. I had just stood on that exact spot, looking left and right of the church and upwards towards the steeple. I’d looked everywhere but down. Had I not been so obsessed with that door, I might have easily noticed the words of Meister Eckhart himself, etched into the very floor, right below my feet.

While the door includes a verse from the book of John, the floor memorial features seven distinct quotes from Eckhart, who for several years had delivered weekly sermons to his congregation in Erfurt. On one of those floor plaques reads the memorable message, “Man kann Gott nicht besser finden als dort, wo man ihn lässt”, which I would translate as: “Nowhere can you better discover God than where you let Him go.”

I can hardly think of a better phrase to sum up the lesson I learned in my long and winding quest to locate that glorious door. Sometimes the greatest discoveries are waiting right at our finger tips, if only we can let go of our tenacious attachment to the search.

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