Sunday, March 24, 2013

A quartz contentment, like a stone

I have been going through some interesting experiences of community, so called. It's instructive to have what Bonhoeffer called "the view from below."

Thus, this poem speaks to me:

After great pain a formal feeling comes--
The nerves sit ceremonious like tombs;
The stiff Heart questions--was it He that bore?
And yesterday--or centuries before?
The feet, mechanical, go round
A wooden way
Of ground, or air, or ought,
Regardless grown,
A quartz contentment, like a stone.
This is the hour of lead
Remembered if outlived,
As freezing persons recollect the snow--
First chill, then stupor, then the letting go.
     Emily Dickinson

"A quartz contentment, like a stone."

Then I happened to find this passage yesterday, randomly, as I opened a book:

"He began to be troubled and deeply distressed. He said to them 'My soul is exceedingly sorrowful... Stay here and watch!"

"Stay here and watch!"  He speaks urgently. Did his friends stay and watch? 

Not one. 

What I respond to in the passion story is this: it's dark and unflinching about how human beings are.

Yet I do believe, like George Fox,  that over the ocean of darkness is an ocean of light.

Friday, March 8, 2013

On Charisma, charism, popes and Quakers

Charism: "An extraordinary power (as of healing) given a Christian by the Holy Spirit for the good of the church."

Charisma: "Compelling attractiveness or charm that can inspire devotion in others."

I read in the newspaper that the Cardinals electing the new pope hope to find someone strong enough to clean up the corruption in the Vatican and charismatic enough to appeal to the masses.

I have a charming vision of these Cardinals in their red robes and caps gathering amid the splendors of the Sistine Chapel to engage in an ancient process. I hold them in the light and hope they are Spirit led.

I feel fearful when I read that the Cardinals seek someone with charisma, because I worry that what they want is a leader with "compelling attractiveness and charm," when what they really need is a person with charism, the power of the Holy Spirit.

Likewise, when I read their desire to elect a man with the strength to clean up the corruption, I worry they mean strong  in a worldly sense:  A man with a domineering personality who will not be afraid to bring his fist down on the table and smash the parasites.

At its worst, this worldly, charismatic strongman sounds like Adolph Hitler.

I know that's not what the Catholic Church really wants. The body longs for spiritual renewal, for the healing of a wounded institution. That won't happen as long as the Cardinals  choose the next pope according to a laundry list that  adheres to worldly standards. The new pope needs to speak Italian? Really? Is that what God requires in a great spiritual leader: Italian? He needs to be in his early 60s? Really? Joan of Arc was purportedly 14, Jesus purportedly 30. He needs to be a he? Really?

The church needs a person with charism, not charisma, and a person with the strength of a Jesus or St. Francis: someone who in his, or dare I say her, seeming weakness can discern God’s love and  speak truth to power. I think of a movie I saw about the new Dalai Lama being a child; I think as well of Isaiah's "and a child shall lead them;" I think of Jesus' disciples, a lot a careful corporate manager would never pick to grow the brand.

I wish something like a Pentecostal fire would descend on those Cardinals in the Sistine Chapel, and that they would feel moved to throw out the check list and let the Spirit lead in their choice of a new pope. 

I think too about the Quakers. In the absence of hierarchy, I believe we often become too reliant on personality, on charisma-"attractiveness and charm"-- and not charism. I met a Quaker years ago who said she could only determine what she thought about Thomas Kelly's Testament of Devotion if she could meet Thomas Kelly, who, unfortunately, was long dead.  Really? He'd have to be personable before she'd accept his wisdom? Where would that put people like Van Gogh, Beethoven, and even, I suspect, the Apostle Paul? 

I hope when it comes to choosing a pope or the next leader of a Quaker organization, Spirit's wisdom leads and that those tasked with making decisions can discern substance from shadow. I wonder how we develop the trust that makes that possible.

Birds and abundance

With all the snow this winter, I have been attentive to putting bird food in the feeder outside our kitchen window. But with my broken wrist, the food ran out.

"We need to take the rest of the bird food and put it in the feeder," I said to Roger, pointing at the bag on the counter. "It's snowing again, and the birds have nothing to eat."

"They can eat at Fran and Richard's feeder," he said. Fran and Richard are our neighbors down the street. They are not so close. Would the birds know to go there?

Roger poured the rest of the food into the feeder, because of course he was joking about sending hungry birds to Fran and Richard.

All winter, I, the urban-suburbanite, had been marveling at how long the seed lasted when we poured it out. At first, I chased off the fat red squirrel who beelined for the food, fearful he would take it all and hoard it in his nest, but I found I didn't to worry. He would come, take his supply and leave.

None of the birds took all the food. Sometimes cardinals would chase off the smaller birds, but once the cardinals were done, plenty was left over for the wrens, finches and chickadees who would join the red headed woodpecker for a feed.

The food would last and last.

But this latest refill attracted crows. Two crows ate while a big black crow sat on the roof of the feeder, keeping guard. They were ominous looking, big and shiny. Oh dear, I thought, birds so big and smart are going to eat all the food and none will left for the little birds.

This was not true. The crows ate and flew away. Soon all the hopping and perky little birds had flocked to the feeder, and when they were gone, the squirrel came and ate.

I can't stop marveling at this. The birds, the squirrels and the mice who no doubt come at night, treat this food as manna from heaven: provision for today. Yet why wouldn't they hoard? From what I understand, cold and snow take quite a toll on birds in terms of mortality.

Perhaps the real question is how I've become so indoctrinated into an ideology of hoarding that it seems amazing to me that some group of animals--the "stronger," of course--wouldn't come in a strip away every last tiny seed from the feeder in the first hour it was put out, so as to secure themselves--but they don't. Outside of the grasshopper and locust hordes familiar to readers of the Little House books and the Bible or the relentless assault of the killer ants in The Poisonwood Bible, animals don't strip a landscape bare. As we know from Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, animals can devour each other in ruthless and ingenious way, most of them grisly, but they do this--primarily, though let's not forget the wanton killing of the fox or weasel in a henhouse-- on the basis of need, not greed.

I learn so much living in this rural area just by looking out my windows. I like to imagine myself, like Coleridge or Wordsworth or, for that matter, Beatrix Potter, living in an American equivalent of the English Lake District, and while we don't have as many lakes, we do have hills and I do have a view of a small lake from my bedroom window. But I digress.

What I learn from nature is, as with the injured crows, the natural world is not the "dog eat dog" monolith we are led to believe. It's much more complex and nuanced. Thus, there's simply no firm basis for it being unequivocally "natural" that the "strong" humans in our culture take and hoard vast swathes of resources, leaving others sick, hungry and fearful.

Environmentalists and Native Americans have been saying this forever, of course, but there's no greater teacher than the experiential. I read the Sermon on the Mount with new insight, and meanwhile Hopkins's poem "God's Grandeur" keeps running through my mind: I see in the birds that "dearest freshness deep down things" and am reminded that over the "bent" world "the Holy Spirit broods" with warm breast and ah! bright wings.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Downton Abbey

Like many, I've watched Downton Abbey, partially to engage in a cultural phenomenon, partially because I enjoy looking at it, and partially to follow the unfolding story.

Primarily, however, I've watched it because it troubles me.

Downton presents a false worldview and sticks to it unwaveringly, no matter what the twists and turns of the plot. It's the worldview of the southern plantation, the aesthetic of the Nazi. As the photograph shows, it's a society of rigid hierarchy, with a visible gulf between rich and poor, a world that promises harmonious--in fact beautiful-- functioning as long as everyone knows and accepts his or her place. Masters are masters, servants are servants,  and never should the worlds mix outside of their ritualized and circumscribed boundaries.

Much--arguably most--of the plot revolves around challenges to the hierarchy, but such threats are always deflected: the moral righteousness of the plantation system always triumphs; the logic and aesthetic of its order are ever on display. Transgressors, nay, sinners--defined as those who bring confusion into the hierarchy--are justly punished and the rightful order always restored.

The examples of the validation of this plantation worldview are almost too numerous to list, but I will offer a few:

Early on, Matthew Crawley, the middle-class son of a doctor, finds he is heir to the Downton estate. A great climatic moment arrives when he allows a valet to dress him. He has provided a job to a suitably grateful underling.  That the money spent employing this person might be better used supporting a job with social utility--say another teacher in the village-- never crosses the consciousness of the Downton ruling class.

Disruption occurs when Lady Sybil, the earl's youngest daughter, elopes with the "socialist" Irish chauffeur. He naturally must be humiliated in some way to atone for the deadly sin of socialism--the idea of leveling the social classes. He's unmanned by his inability to "protect" his wife, reduced to crying, sniveling and taking unsolicited advice from a servant. Any "socialism"--which seems to manifest chiefly as his initial refusal to dress for dinner--quickly crumbles in face of the logic of the plantation--in fact, too, his vague socialist mutterings early on morph into an equally vague Irish nationalism. Socialism and nationalism might be at odds, but why quibble? The salient point is that he must be brought to heel and he is, for after all, such an emasculated child-man only needs firm guidance.

Early on, the servants O'Brien, the lady's maid, and Thomas, a footman, are a disgruntled twosome,   bitter and questioning of the Downton social order. Each wonders why it is that they must grovel and labor while others, by the mere accident of birth, live in luxury and leisure. Both, naturally, get their comeuppance. Thomas decides after the war to leave Downton and go into business speculating on black market foodstuffs. He sinks his savings into bad merchandise and must creep back to Downton for a job. He had the audacity to try to rise above himself; how much happier he would have been if he'd simply accepted his place as a servant in the great chain of being. Likewise, O'Brien, overcome with remorse for her malice when "her ladyship" Lady Cora gets sick,  repents of having thought ill of her betters. Both servants are devious, dishonest operators, underscoring by their character flaws the immorality inherent in questioning the social order--those of evil, impure character challenge the system; pure characters, like the maid Anna and her valet husband (not coincidentally a manly-man), accept it without murmur.

When, during the war, the maid Ethel crosses class lines to have an affair with a major, not only is she fired, she gets pregnant, has a baby and  resorts to prostitution to survive. She is redeemed, but at the cost of her child, for, when finally broken, she sees the wisdom of allowing the upper class grandparents of the boy (the major is killed in the war) raise him.

When Lady Mary Crawley sleeps, under the very roof of Downton Abbey, with  a Turk (shades of Princess Diana), he dies in her bed, and worse, her sister finds out. To keep her secret, Mary betroths herself to a self-made newspaper magnate she despises, punished by the purgatory of an ill-suited male. Happiness arrives when she eventually marries the Downton heir.

Lady Edith, the second sister, throws herself at older man, desperate to marry. In doing so, she doubly offends the social order. First, it violates the Downton code for the young and healthy to mix with the old and/or infirm, a morality constantly reinforced by her grandmother, Lady Violet. Second, as is underscored by Anna, the maid who represents the moral center of Downton--blond, pretty, exemplary as a servant in her ever competent, wise, deeply respectful and loving care of her masters, as well as perfect in her understanding of her female role--a woman should never, as she tells the scullery maid, Daisy, throw herself at a man. Lady Edith's punishment is the humiliation of being left at the altar. Afterwards, she emphasizes her renewed understanding and acceptance of the social order when she insists on getting up and going downstairs for breakfast--breakfast in bed, she says, is for married women, not spinsters.

One might argue that the series merely mirrors the social mores of the period. Perhaps true but problem is that the show, in fact, reinforces rather than critiques these values. Downton might allow the window-dressing of challenges to the social system: a woman in bloomers! a socialist chauffeur! but in the end the power and the rectitude of the traditional order triumphs.

I believe the show appeals because our hearts long for an ordered universe. In a rightly ordered world, hunger, violence and unnecessary suffering would disappear. Yet what these various ideologies of hierarchy-of plantation, Aryan race or manor-- offer is a distortion of an order that emerges most perfectly when people are treated as equals. The Southern plantation system, for example, exemplifies, in the nostalgic retrospective of some white southerners, an idealized social order. If only people would have accepted their places in the hierarchy, what a beautiful world it would still be. If only the black slaves would have devoted themselves with pure hearts to serving their masters, the system would run have smoothly and benignly. The fault was not in the system or the superiors, but in the uppity underlings. The problem is that this story is untrue. Likewise, in the Nazi aesthetic, if only the lesser races (at least those not exterminated) would have accepted and served Aryan superiority, the world would have run as a well-ordered machine. The brutality of both systems might be obscured, hidden under the loveliness of flowing hoopskirts and beautiful blonds in slinky silk gowns but nonetheless was real and possible because of the almost unlimited power of one group over another. (A rule of thumb: the real brutality of a world is proportional to the beauty and luxury its upper classes display.)

Thus, beautiful Downton troubles me because it too depicts a  highly unequal hierarchy based  on birthright as fundamentally right and good. Servants who accept their God-given places have good lives in this world. For all the talk of hard work, we never see a servant worked to exhaustion; in fact, the lives of the staff seem a veritable smorgasbord of community, abundance and treats. Under the benign eyes of their "parents," the butler and housekeeper, they are, as children would be,  indulged with goodies like a day at the fair--provided their chores are complete.  And who would not want to be of the suave, adult upper classes, waited on hand and foot, floating through life in beautiful clothes and gracious surroundings, secure in the knowledge that one's  privilege is both deserved and positively contributing to the good of the universe? I am reminded of Ben Jonson's "To Penshurst," about another "rightly ordered" country house in which the fish eagerly jump out of the stream in their rush to be served on the dinner table, and the fruit falls effortlessly from the tree.  The realities of toil are eradicated in favor of a myth that serves the interest of those on top.

We know, of course, that the great country houses often did offer the most comfortable terms of employment, and hence skimmed off the most qualified servants. We know, too, that the lives of the staff in lesser homes could be much rougher. Were there any question that the life of a servant was often harsh, we need only look at the "servant problem:" given a choice, working people flocked to the factories and offices. In Downton, one servant does this; however, this  is quickly glossed over and forgotten. In Downton, the real cruelties and abuses of servitude simply don't exist, just as in the movie Gone With the Wind's Tara and Twelve Oaks, the laughter of the happy slaves fills the air.

Downton makes its plot decisions in service of a ruling class ideology that validates and adulates the class system. Yes, Sybil's death may have arisen from the desire of the actress playing her to leave the show, but that didn't necessitate her dying as a result of childbirth. What if she had died bravely standing up for genuinely oppressed workers, perhaps as part of a coal miner's strike? She would be just as dead, but the series would have complexified the happy plantation mythology--and added historical realism--by showing how the ruling class often did behave abusively and cruelly in order to maintain their luxuries. What if Matthew Crawley had insisted on using his valet budget for a schoolteacher and housed him at the abbey? What if the Crawleys really had lost their money without a deus ex machina salvation?

Quakers have challenged this mirage of social order from their earliest days. Against the myth of the happy plantation, Quakers continue to provide a counter narrative of a society built on principles of equality.  Yet I am troubled that the discredited worldview of Downton Abbey remains so seductive. Why is this so?