Sunday, April 21, 2019

In the Name of Humanity

My father was an architect more interested in meeting human needs than building monuments. But I know he cared about beautiful things, things he could build, just like he cared about people. Another sermon here, I'm afraid.
Notre Dame and Louisiana
In the Name of Humanity

From the very beginnings of human civilization architecture has been a testimony of lasting human needs. It has been art and the vessel of artistry. It is the art that “builds,”as the Greeks remind us, tekt┼Źn and it is of “chief,” arkhi concern. It can be pre-made like the caves of Chauvet or Altamira but what is contained within them is as much what we mean when we feel the importance of place. What we place within the architecture of human need speaks to our great stories and, perhaps as importantly, tells us a story that we think transcends even humanity.

One needs to think of Notre Dame as a narrative not only of the past but of our deeper need for eternity expressing achievement, the developments we have made, the travails we have endured over the ages. Notre Dame survived the wars and it has survived Christianity, which might be the real miracle. It is about the power of human ingenuity and human hope representing the power of the divine. It doesn’t matter what you think about that “divine” or even if it exists, it matters that there is something more than our brief, individual lives. It matters that we make something that attends to the “more.”

This “more” that we need is a complex matter and it is no zero sum game. We can want the majesty of the monument and not address the needs of human community. We can want a richer sense of human community without the monuments.  We can have both.

When we compare the burning of Notre Dame to the devastation of people whose churches have been burned down by arson we witness the inverse of that testimony to collective greatness. We see too that humans have possibilities for nihilism and hate and that these are powerful, motivating, and disturbing. When we grieve for our nihilism we show our better angels. When we grieve for those who have lost their community’s center, we find in grief the companions of those same angels. There is something about grief that tells us what matters.

With the GoFundMe campaign to restore the Louisiana churches we are witness to human goodness and care. When we see billionaires pledging to restore Notre Dame we see an old story of history about power and with President Macron vowing restoration we see that we have a need too for monuments of culture. But these matters are easily mixed up and I think they are not the same nor are they exclusionary.

What we have in Notre Dame is our desire for majesty. What we have seen in Louisiana is a story about caring for each other. Both can be directive from culture about the kinds of culture we want and need. If this were the same story we’d have understood from the outset that accidents are not like intentions and that goodness is not the same as the human need for magisterial awe.

What we write when we create place are complex stories of human desire. Our need for each other and for the story of majesty are not the same need. We may need to make art and to construct the enduring material projects of the imagination. But we surely need each other, even when we seem intent upon destroying the world.

Traditions are not built merely on monuments. They converge on human feelings, as ephemeral as they are and as misdirected as they can be. Whether or not people have the privilege and power to build great stone churches or temples to commerce or other spaces of grandeur, what we want to know is if they must have already learned to care for each other.

Architecture began before writing but as it evolved it has proven capable of telling more stories than were originally intended. Writing meets the human need to connect to one another across time and place. Architecture defines itself in place, contains other kinds of stories, like art, and invites our connection to itself and to those things. Great works of architecture want to place a seal upon tradition, they want to claim their value apart from our mortal coil. But because we are so very human, that is not enough even when it outlasts us. We are going to need each other and, as far as I can tell, that is the story we tell when we help good people rebuild their communities.

Long before architecture wrote its story, humanity has had to ask what more we want from ourselves and from each other. We’ve proven ourselves capable of everything from debased, amoral venality to altruism and love for neighbor we don’t even know. We need not exclude one kind of need from another. What we can do instead is try to feel the breadth and meaning of our needs and admit that their complexity often confuses us. What is clear is that there is always more to the story than what we can express in words, which is why we grieve and applaud and wonder at all of the things that humans create.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Twenty Five Years in April

Another morning’s come in April without you.
It’s that time again
but not how I ever wanted it to be,
There’s no right in being right
without you and me and all that you left here

Gift for gift, love for love, goodbye good day good night
another day another time to come, another year in April
It was once upon a time together
when the people looked because they knew
when I was there for you
and you're here now
but not for me to choose

You know what I would do
if I could do it again
just to be to be with you again
what I would do if I could do it again
on another day in April

Gift for gift, love for love, goodbye good night good day
another day another time to come,
because time has done what time will do
when it’s not for us to choose
before the end that comes again another year in April

Gift for gift, love for love, we're here with you
who love you now

Sunday, April 14, 2019

The Spiritual Life Revisited

Ahh, mon cher, as you know, I have long averted the distinction that nowadays tells us we can be spiritual and not religious.  Just what to make of this difference?  If it waddles, quacks, has webbed feet, and a bill it's likely a duck.  What folks often call "spirituality" looks much like a "religion" because it passes the proverbial duck test.  Their spiritual preference often has ritual, mythology, a favored and authorized body of lore that works like a canon---to wit, it has many of the features of a religion, and it usually has a tribe too.  It's hard to have a religion without a tribe.  But I think we may be spiritual even in our aloneness.  Now we may be onto something.

There might be a distinction with a difference that is worth more consideration.  We can surely be religious, I think, and not be spiritual.  We can be spiritual but not religious.  And we can be both at once.  So even as I try to be brief here, it may not be as small a matter to sort out as I thought.  Let's persist, for that's surely the best beginning of a spiritual life.

What is it to be spiritual? 'Tis easy and at once, of course, utterly impossible.  This is because I think we must embrace paradox when we choose a spiritual life.  Must we? Without the whole of the paradox I think our understandings will fall short, even if our feelings make the occasion complete.  Let's take this apart, take it to heart, see what we find.

Pascal is a good beginning.  He puts it plainly enough, Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connait pas.  

We know from the unconscious core of our being, from our very cause of existence that the spirit cannot not defend reason when the heart commands.  In truth, it's no contest even when in fact we refuse.  The mind can tell any story, offer any reason but the heart will rule.  We may conceal and dissimulate, we may pretend and rationalize but the heart will rule.  No matter the weight of the evidence, no matter how persuasive or indisputable the case, there is always something more, more at stake, more that must take its place.  The spirit is that something else that we cannot deny no matter what story the mind tells---for what won't we do for love?

We are onto the matter now, for a spiritual life is committed and tested and founded in love.  By that I mean we have feelings so primal, so real and deep that the soul forms itself around them.  What we care about, what we put before other things, what we must do because we are called to do it---that is the spirit's command, the heart's direction, its vector and compass.  Just what are you willing to do for that?  That is spiritual adjuration and to that you must answer, no matter the time or circumstance if it is a spiritual life you want.  What moves you? You know, you always know even when you doubt or deny.  

The spiritual life is when life is what we cannot avoid or postpone, even when we neglect, procrastinate, or deny it---still the heart will feel and it will insist.  No heart can ever be forced to love but the spirit learns and teaches what we know is true.  This is why the spiritual life can also be your vocation, your work, your everyday commitment, the thing you do.  It is not only the what you do that is you but it is the you within that must do it.  In the spiritual life you live in your skin, it is how you come to know yourself, it is the form you take when what you do is who you are, and the other way around too.

The spiritual is living, for the heart, like love true and deep, will not wilt or diminish no matter how many springs and summers pass.  Look to the Bard to savor this immortal's mortal form, for he tells us what we all know to be true, "To me, fair friend, you never can be old, For as you were when first your eye I eyed, Such seems your beauty still." (Sonnet 104)

So it is: all that is spirit lives and will not die a mortal death no matter the fact that death will take every mortal life.  And this is more still...

The spirit is never trivial. It all that is compelling and necessary just to be. It is clamorous, exigent, importunate, and principal. In the deepest feelings of what you know to be urgent and momentous, the spiritual presses us and leads us to the imperative center, to the heart's source.

Yeats tells us,
"Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity..."

And then? Then, what is left is the spirit and from there the spiritual life begins again.  It comes first and second, and in the last it is what will endure, resist, and lay down its marker.  Not everyone I think wants this, not everyone seeks it.  It may be too that some are denied it for reasons they do not control or command.  A spiritual life is not easy to come by and less easy to live.  We all have some of it because we love---and let us hope everyone gets that chance.

To be spiritual is to love deeply.  And all who do must agree without consent, even without understanding, that to love is to grieve.  To love we must also admit to fear and accept its shadow too, to stand in the terror of all that can happen because what we love, who we love and that we love can fail us, it may disappoint, betray, or die---and we are not in command, we do not control all that can happen because we love. And still we love. A spiritual life brings all those possibilities and accepts, withstands, and will choose to live with every peril that love harbors.

There is a difference worthy of note, though I will not dwell too much on this distinction: religion is not the same in all of these ways; for religion is foremost how we manage, it is how we console and cope, we use it to form ourselves in tribe and stand in its good (and bad) graces.  When our religion tells the heart's story, love's clamant and inescapable truth, then it is also our spirituality.  But religion need not be that when all we might need is its armature to support our needs and feelings---be that in ritual or for sake of the clan and its needs.  Religion may place demands upon us but it is not the same as  the heart's truth, for that is a matter far more private and cuts more deeply.  And yes, it will cut.

The spiritual calls us, cajoles, inspires, intimidates, demands, invites, and resolves to be there in our hearts---to wail, to weep, to howl and bleed---for there are the things worth living and dying for.  And there are indeed things we must do because we must.  The spiritual may be your art, your work, your calling, but it is always vital and acute, often dangerous and sometimes disturbing because we cannot but feel it.

While religion attends well to the anodyne, to things we must do when we must do them, religion serves matters that may feel compulsory---but this is not the same as the spirit's imperious identity.  The spirit is self, the sort that withstands religion's tyrannies and cannot be defeated by mere threats or worse.  Religion may serve us when we need it but the spiritual life never ceases, never pauses, never goes on vacation or merely appears for the occasion.  A spiritual life is about always, ever, now.

So, no matter what reason might claim or what religion might demand, spirit calls us to live from its imperative and no other. We may not succeed, we may not rise to the spirit's calling.  We can fail in our spiritual lives because, well, because we can.  But when we want a spiritual life more than all, we will risk it all to stand in the midst of our mortal storm---in a world that may not for one moment care what happens to us.

We will break and are sure to be broken but in the life of the spirit we live, we carry on and we live for its calling.  Dumas reminds us to shake our fist, give it our worst.  We will raise our voice, hold and be held, we will give our all for better and for worst because the heart accepts no less. The spirit does not wait for the storm to come. The spiritual life's storm is always here and now, it knows it is always the time to love and to care, to burn and to cry.  Make yourself the person that the Fates that know you to be, as we do, as you are.

The spiritual life must come from the very core of our being, from the place of paradox, and its calling is simple enough: to live deeply and truly is to love.  We may die unfinished and incomplete in this calling, perhaps a thousand deaths and more even before we die, but when you choose the spiritual life you never, ever relent.  Perhaps that is enough.