St. Thérèse and Me

It is difficult sometimes to feel like what I am doing with my life--reading books, writing the occasional blog post, teaching history--is at all important in the grand scheme of things. Why am I not, for example,* pushing the boundaries of our knowledge about the human genome forward or filling auditoria with young people to celebrate the wonders of mathematics (with, of course, the implication that science and mathematics more or less by definition matter more than history or prayer, never mind the history of prayer)? Why am I, rather, spending my life studying ideas that have been available in the tradition for hundreds, sometimes even thousands of years? Why am I even studying a tradition rather than creating something entirely new? Because, I now realize, this is my proper work. Or, at least, thanks to St. Thérèse of Lisieux, I think that I understand how it may in fact be my proper work.

As usual of late, I'm not saying this well. Things have been simply too hectic these past few weeks, what with the conference in New Haven and then the tournament in Dallas and then classes starting and then spending the weekend unpacking the kitchen just in time to cook Easter dinner at home. What I want to say is that, thanks to something that I read in Jacques Philippe's Time for God (2008), I now realize that what I've been struggling with is no more and no less than the age-old tension between the active and contemplative lives. Should I, like Martha, be anxious with much serving? Or should I, like Mary, rather sit at Our Lord's feet, listening to his teaching and contemplating His Word? The world favors Martha and rewards her with houses and large salaries and awards for public service, but I have always been drawn rather to Mary, her need for quiet and thought.

It's funny, because I am usually worried that I am not contemplative enough, that I am too easily distracted by things like kitchens and cleaning. And yet, I now realize, I am far more distracted from things like founding institutes for the study of prayer or organizing my colleagues to produce series of books by my own thinking about prayer. It is unlikely that I am ever going to be one of those scholars at the center of a great group of scholars all beavering away to answer this or that particular research question. You are much more likely to find me, like Ferdinand the bull, sitting off in the meadow smelling the flowers. Sure, I can leap about with the best of them if I am stung badly enough (read, afraid of losing my job), but what I truly enjoy doing is thinking and writing, if not in fact writing for publication or in order to make money off of what I write. Again, it's the writing itself that comforts and stimulates me rather than being practical about what I do with it.

Likewise with my scholarship. I love reading books and drawing up syllabuses. And I love teaching and having the opportunity to talk with students about my ideas. But I am very bad at doing anything with what I teach other than teaching. And guess what? That's okay. I have, after all, dedicated my life to the study of Mary. How appropriate that I should take her part in sitting at the Lord's feet. This is the realization--or something like it--that St. Thérèse had. As Rev. Philippe puts it: "She had wanted to have all vocations, because she wanted to love Jesus to the point of madness and serve the Church in all possible ways. The breadth of her desires tormented her. She found peace of soul only when she realized, with the help of Scripture, that the greatest service she could render the Church, one that contained all others in itself, was to keep ablaze in herself the fire of love. 'Without that love, the missionaries will stop announcing the Gospel, the martyrs will cease to give their lives.... At last I have discovered my vocation: in the heart of the Church, Mother, I will be love!'"

It is about being St. Me. I can look at what others are doing and think, "I should be doing that." But the only thing that I actually should be doing is what I am doing now. Our assistant priest Anne preached on this theme again Sunday before last, when I was at the tournament and so could not hear: "What Jesus, and Mary [Magdalene], and Martin [Luther King, Jr.], and Oscar [Romero], and Hissa [Hilal] know is that you can't kill a person who's walking a path with heart. Like them, you have to be yourself, and no one else can tell you how--you have to kind of move in and take possession of the you that life has given you, then you have to give yourself away--intentionally and genuinely interacting with the circumstances of your time and place, in ways that enliven you--whether you are a provocateur, a healer, a maker of beauty, a prophet of change, a bringer of peace.... But because we've spent time in the company of such people as these, we're more able to pour our lives out instead of hoarding them or ultimately just having them taken away from us. And, to the extent that we each find our unique voice, our path with a heart, we enliven and encourage others around us, building up over time a community of goodness, a path of beauty for each other, and for future generations. Now that's jazz!"

Does my path have heart? Or am I just deluding myself and hiding behind what I find easier to do? Is what I find easy what I am meant to be doing? I suppose that is always my big question. I don't trust what I do anyway, when nothing is stinging me to push myself beyond my comfort zone. But who says my comfort zone is not where I should be? Maybe it is my comfort zone because it is what I should be. My son sits in church writing out math equations (in ink!) on his bulletin; more often than not, I find myself grabbing one of the little pencils in the back of the chairs and scribbling notes about what I want to write in my blog. And yet...and yet, I know that I should be writing more difficult things, pushing myself to articulate complex theological premises, elucidating the arcana of the tradition, achieving great insights into the structures of contemplative thought. Maybe, in fact, I am--but how would I know when these are the thoughts that simply come easily to me? Do they come easily to everyone? Do they come at all to anyone other than me? And if I ignore them because they seem too, well, easy, does that mean that they do not otherwise get thought?

I am distressed that what I read in books and in other blogs more often than not seems at once more sophisticated than the things that I write while at the same time less compelling. I am not sure that I could write much of what I read--the insights are so startling, the ideas so well-expressed--and yet, so much of what I read seems to miss the point of what to my mind most needs to be said. Which can only mean that there are indeed thoughts that only I can express and that if I do not express will remain forever unsaid, even if to my mind they would seem to go without saying because they are so obvious. Obvious, perhaps, to me, but are they so obvious to anyone else?

Such as, for example, this: our priest alluded yesterday in his Easter sermon to the way in which our consumer culture promises that it is possible to buy ourselves relief from the suffering that life inevitably brings. Which, to a certain extent, is problematic. As Peter put it: "The amazing number of catalogs that stuff my mailbox are a reminder that I can anesthetize myself from all of it through consumerism. But somewhere in those 30% post-consumer-waste catalogs selling goods designed to become obsolete lurks the suggestion that life is without intrinsic value." A common criticism of our apparently insatiable desire for more and more goods. But isn't there a reason that the things advertised in the catalogs are called "goods"? Is it not in fact the case that things like furniture and clothing and kitchens and art make our lives more comfortable and pleasing? Would we in fact be better off without them, as the spiritual Franciscans contended, if we were voluntarily poor?

Yes, we tend in the industrialized world to have more stuff than it seems we realistically need, but surely this is a problem of excess, not the fault of the things of themselves with which we surround ourselves. Yes, they wear out or become obsolete or, perhaps worse, less fashionable, but why do we expect them to last? They are made things, material things, matter--and everything material tends to decay. Is it therefore wrong to want new things? I am certainly happier now that I have my new kitchen. Was it wrong of me to want to remodel when my old kitchen was perfectly functional (well, mostly functional if you did not try to make toast and tea at the same time or want to be able to see what you were cooking)? Again, I'm not saying this well, and yet the thought has been rattling around inside of me now for weeks, ever since I felt drawn to read Thorstein Veblen and think about our relationship to stuff. Should I try to write a book or maybe an article about this? But what do I know about theories of consumerism? Aren't I simply justifying my desire to shop?

I seem to be making a habit of these rambling, discursive posts. But it is rather the way my thoughts have been going of late; hopping about from one thought to another, unable to settle onto any one theme. I really need to do some reading now for my class tomorrow. And I just noticed that the puppy has chewed the bottom of the chair--again. Her teeth are coming in and her gums have been bleeding a good deal. Maybe once she finishes teething she'll be less inclined to chew. It was a beautiful day today, the colors so crisp it nearly took your breath away. Language is indeed a clumsy instrument; if only if were possible to communicate our insights more immediately. Then maybe someone could tell me what to look for as I am fencing. My legs are tired and my feet have been quite swollen of late. I wonder if it has something to do with all of the walking that I've been doing. Who would have believed that such a short-legged doggie could move so fast? I really wish I could figure out some way to express what I think Christianity means. Perhaps I should go to bed now and review the reading in the morning. I don't think I'm thinking very clearly any more, despite the Turkish coffee that my son brewed for me at dinner.

Maybe one day someone will read these ramblings and tell me what they mean. Contemplation is like that, I suppose. But how does one sift through so many thoughts?

*Hat tip to Monika Collins for the reference to Freeman Dyson's review.


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