Thursday, December 31, 2009
And so the new year is coming. A year like all the rest. A year of disappointment with myself and others... The year in which decisive hours are approaching me quietly and unobtrusively, and the fulness of my time is coming.... Outwardly, of course, they will not look any different from anyone's everyday moments of good works and proper omissions. Consequently I may overlook the--the slight patience which makes life slightly more tolerable for those around me; the omission of an excuse; taking the risk of building on the good faith of those I would be inclined to mistrust because I think I have had unfortunate experiences with them before; genuine acceptance of their being good grounds for someone else's criticism of me...to allow an injury done to me to die away in myself without prolonging it by complaints, rancor, bitterness and revenge; fidelity in prayer which is not rewarded with ‘consolations’ or ‘religious experience’; the attempt to love those who get on my nerves (through their own fault, of course)...the tolerance which does not pay back another’s ‘intolerance’ in kind; the endeavor not to trade on my virtues as a charter for my faults; a prompt will to improve myself when I see sins in others and would dearly like to reform them; the firm conviction, firmly maintained against myself, that I very willingly and easily delude myself and leave a number of faults and pettinesses undisclosed which would strike us as patently obvious in anyone else; the suppressed complaint and the self-praise omitted and many other things which would only really be good if one practised them constantly, though it is true that it is better to do something than not to do anything at all, for one cannot manage everything at once.
We only need seriously to try to do such commonplace everyday things. Then they become terrible...
Sunday, December 27, 2009
Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.
James 1:22, NIV
The gulf between word and deed is untruth. The dissonance between creed and deed is at the root of innumerable wrongs in our civilization; it is the weakness of all churches, states, parties and persons.
--from The Life of Mohandas Gandhi by Louis Fischer
I’ve always loved words and ideas. I’ve devoured books eagerly ever since I learned to read. I have been stretched, challenged, moved and delighted by other people’s words about faith, love, justice, truth, sustainability. Sometimes I have been able to speak movingly about these things myself, and I have prized that ability highly. But as I look at the world I don’t see a desperate need for more eloquent words, more moving expressions of conviction. I don’t think I have anything to say about the grand scheme of things that has not already been said, and said better, in many different eras and languages. I don’t think most of the problems in my life or in the lives of my neighbors come from a lack of inspiring words and laudable convictions. I think they come from our inability or unwillingness to let those words become flesh, to align our lives with our convictions.
I think there is something particualrly dangerous in professing excellent principles and not laboring to bring our lives into line with them. If I proclaim my trust in God but don’t to listen carefully to God, and follow what I hear faithfully, then I become anxious, shallow and self-contradictory, and it would be easy for people to look at me and conclude that my faith leads to futility and exhaustion. If I proclaim my belief in peace and economic justice and yet consume things in a way that requires war and the exploitation of other people, then people could easily look at me and conclude that peace and justice are nice ideals but can’t be put into practice. So I need to learn to embody the truth rather than just talking about it.
The best phrase I’ve heard to describe this unity I seek comes from a Spanish biography of Dorothy Day, which praised her for practicing ‘l’arte de vivir como si la Verdad fue verdad”, which translates roughly as ‘the art of living as if the Truth was true.” It’s an easy idea to grasp; it’s harder to practice.
Perhaps the hardest thing is admitting the gap that exists between our words and our deeds. Certainly it was hard for me. As a child growing up in assorted Protestant churches I believed in and talked about the importance of loving God wholeheartedly and loving neighbors as myself. I often tried to be fair and kind to my family and neighbors, but sometimes I didn’t try at all, and after those times I was painfully aware of the gap between what I was and what I meant and professed to be. Often I dealt with this by making grand resolves about future good behavior and forgetting my lapses as soon as possible.
As I grew my understanding of God’s call spread to take in issues of peace, social justice, environmental health. (I was homeschooled, so I had time to put into whatever mattered to me). I read about these issues and wrote letters to my Congressmen and to the editor of the local paper. I volunteered for various good causes. I dreamed of becoming an activist. I thought that before I had to manage money, my own or my possible future nonprofit’s, I ought to study economics. I did. It was profoundly disquieting. I learned almost more than I could bear about how the people who produced the food I ate and the clothes I wore were treated, and how the land that supplied the basic resources I consumed was treated. I was smacked up against the realization that my everyday consumption required people to be treated as I would not be willing to be treated; that there was a contradiction between my deepest convictions and the consequences of my daily life.
This time I didn’t try to hide from that realization. I was very fortunate in my mother, who helped my to look squarely at the truth without getting overwhelmed and distracted by my feelings of guilt and confusion. I was also fortunate in coming across John Woolman’s Journal and reading about his struggle to reorder his life so that it didn’t depend on slave labor. The Journal showed me that it really was possible, though not easy, to live as if the Truth was true. It also led me to the Quaker Meeting in Portland, ME, which offered good company, hard questions, and practices for spiritual discernment. With their help my mother and brother and I found our way to St. Francis Farm in upstate NY. I’ve been here for the past eight years, working as a volunteer, trying to live an alternative to the consumer culture and to be a good neighbor. For my part this involves starting and ending the day with prayer, growing food to eat and share, listening to neighbors and guests and helping them as I can. (More information about St. Francis Farm is available at our website, www.stfrancisfarm.org A fuller version of the way that led me here, and what it’s led me to, is here in an article I wrote for New York Yearly Meeting’s November newspaper issue on money and class. I’ll post more on the money/work issue soon.) This life has pushed me into further realizations about what is worth doing, and I am still trying to live into these.
I certainly haven’t arrived at wholeness. My life is still full of contradictions. But I have taken some first steps and I keep going. And I find myself less and less satisfied with disembodied statements about the Way Things Ought to Be and more and more hungry for others’ stories about how they are living into the truth.
So, in this blog I want to write about some of the ways in which I am trying to practice the truth as I understand it, what helps me and what hinders me. I am interested in hearing about how you—any of you—strive to embody the truth as you understand it, and what helps and hinders you.
I want this because it helps me to find wholeness in myself. I also want it because I believe that this kind of dialogue can bring people into communion across political and theological divides. It’s easy to dismiss someone else’s theological or political creeds. It’s harder, at lest for me, to dismiss someone who says “This matters deeply to me, and I am doing this and this to try to live accordingly, but I still struggle with this obstacle, this blindness, this fear.” I have learned about faithfulness from people whose faith had a rather different content from mine. I think support in faithfulness is one of the best gifts we can offer each other.