The Luminous Mysteries

Until very recently, I was not aware of the meditative power that the rosary can hold. For many years I did not meditate on the rosary at all, and when a while ago I did return to praying it, for several months I didn’t even bother with meditating on the Mysteries that are assigned to it. Perhaps I felt that simply moving through the prayers with the right attention and frame of mind was all that I could manage at one time, until I got my rosary “legs” underneath me again. Whatever the reason, though, I eventually progressed to the point where I was at last ready to try the most enriching dimension of the rosary, the dimension that holds such fullness of potential for encountering God: reflecting on the Mysteries.

There are twenty Mysteries, which are divided into four groups of five. The four groups are the Joyful Mysteries, the Luminous Mysteries, the Sorrowful Mysteries, and the Glorious Mysteries. Since the rosary is divided into five parts, or “decades,” which correspond to five Mysteries, the person meditates on only one of the groups. S/he is spared the task of choosing which group, since there is a customary order that goes by the days of the week. In any case, each of the twenty Mysteries focuses on an event in the life of Christ, with the exception of a few that come from the life of Mary. Yesterday, I found some time to pray the rosary while meditating on the Luminous Mysteries, which are these: 

  1. The Baptism of Christ in the Jordan (Mark 1:9-11)
  2. The Manifestation of Christ at the Wedding at Cana (John 2:1-12)
  3. The Proclamation of the Kingdom of God and Jesus’ Call to Conversion (Mark 1:14-15)
  4. The Transfiguration (Mark 9:2-8)
  5. The Institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper (Mark 14:22-26)

This meditative form of Christian prayer involves focusing the mind on each of these events in turn (following the sections of the rosary) with imagination — visualization — as the lion’s share of the process. For this a person simply needs a humble openness to God, and an openness to wherever the visualization of these Mysteries might lead. Despite a bit of trepidation at first, owing to uncertainty over whether I would be “good at it” or not, I soon found myself with the feeling of drawing back further and further into my mind, into these scenes in the life of Christ. It did not take long for me to enter far enough into each of the scenes in my mind to feel as if I were present there, watching. Though still aware of my surroundings, I also felt considerably detached from them, as if I had mentally entered a different but safe and richly promising place.

I want to write about one thing that occurred to me during this meditative prayer, as I reflected on Christ’s baptism by John the Baptist, who famously expressed shock at the idea that he was being asked to baptize the one “whose sandals he was not fit to untie.” Nonetheless, John did baptize Jesus, after which we are told the Spirit descended upon Jesus like a dove, and God gave a message from Heaven about His Son. As I envisioned this scene in my mind, I felt John’s astonishment as he looked up from the river in which he was baptizing the crowds, to see the very man who represented the Kingdom that John was proclaiming, walking toward him. I imagined John’s awareness that the scene was playing out ostensibly the reverse of how it should — the baptizer knew how outrageous it was that he was baptizing the one who had every right to baptize him.

And that particular point was what got my attention. As John unflinchingly admitted, he himself was only “the voice crying out in the wilderness,” someone who raised his hand to point at someone and something else beyond himself, knowing that the attention belonged elsewhere. But God, in the person of Christ, elected to subordinate Godself — not only in the Incarnation as a human being in the first place, but in the subordination to human hands, with the baptism in the Jordan as a striking example. In his letter to the Philippians, St. Paul quotes a hymn that praises God the Creator for “emptying Himself” by taking on human form in Christ and experiencing human weakness in an unpredictably radical demonstration of divine love. 

This, it turned out, was not going to be a God who would emerge loudly from the sky with dramatic clouds and blowing trumpets, or who would swoop down with a holy saber to eradicate enemies, or who would instantly make everything triumphantly perfect with a wave of His hand. This, instead, was going to be a God who would send Himself here to be born. Not to gloriously appear in the atmosphere with orchestral accompaniment, but to be born the old-fashioned, messy, “unclean” way. This was going to be a God who would submit Himself to hunger, thirst, pain, despair, suffering, and even the disgrace of execution. This was a God who would take the hand of Jairus’ young daughter who had died, incurring (in the belief of onlookers at least) the strong ritual uncleanness that came from touching a corpse. The holy and the divine were supposed to be strictly separated from any ritual uncleanness, and never the two should meet. But here was a God who didn’t seem to think so. This God, after all, was the one who said to St. Paul, “My power is made perfect in weakness.”

All these things seemed encapsulated in the image of Christ submitting himself to be baptized. A profound respect the Creator must have for His creations, it seemed to me, in order to do these things. What if we looked at one another with the same respect? And even though this God’s power is made perfect in weakness, it is a formidable power that can assure the 14th-century English mystic, Julian of Norwich, that at the end “all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of thing will be well…And I saw full surely that ere God made us He loved us; which love was never slacked, nor ever shall be…and in this love our life is everlasting. In our making we had beginning; but the love wherein He made us was in Him from without beginning: in which love we have our beginning. And all this shall we see in God, without end.” (Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love)

© 2012 Elizabeth Keck

 

“Whatever You Bind….”

The other day, I went to confession for the first time in about seventeen years. Confession is more formally known as the Sacrament of Reconciliation; it’s sometimes also called penance, even though that more accurately refers to the small gestures of restitution (such as prayers or good deeds) that the penitent makes after confession. This is done both in repentance and in gratitude for God’s mercy. In Catholic theology, even though God is believed to forgive a person as soon as he/she is sorry for whatever wrong was committed and seeks forgiveness, the act of confessing those sins to God’s minister, and hearing the words of absolution — which is the assurance of God’s forgiveness — is considered eminently useful for the penitent’s psychology. Confession can be done either face-to-face or with the anonymity of a confessional booth, and in either case, the priest is bound by the sacred seal of confession, which he cannot break under any circumstances. He may reveal neither the identity of the penitent (if he knows it) nor the sins confessed, nor may he ever use anything said in the confessional for any reason, because he is witness to internal matters of conscience. The seal of confession is respected by United States law.

For part of the seventeen years before my recent celebration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, I didn’t see the point. Why bother with the potentially uncomfortable and likely unnecessary step of confessing one’s sins to a minister of the Church when those sins were forgiven by God anyway? Shouldn’t they just stay between me, my conscience, and God? What business were they of anybody else anyhow?

The first small chink in my armor here was benignly inflicted by a professor of Russian literature, from Eastern Europe, who I (very) slowly came to realize was one of the most intelligent people I’d ever encountered. He commented one day during a discussion of Chekhov that the idea of confession/penance and the Sacrament of Reconciliation was one of the most useful ideas the Catholics had ever had, and one of the least useful ideas the Protestants had ever had was to get rid of it. Naturally, my youthfully self-satisfied mind wanted to know why such an otherwise intelligent person would say such a thing. I expected him to answer with theology, but got basic human psychology instead. He said that on a basic human level, just feeling sorry for things you’d thought or done, and hoping that God heard you and forgave you when you said so, wasn’t enough. Humans need concrete, external feedback, or validation, or whatever you’d like to call it, because we are concrete beings. It is useful for us to heave heavy burdens off our consciences to another human being on a regular basis, to hear that God has forgiven those very burdens, and to do some small penance as a way of showing restitution, expressing humility and gratitude, and starting on a fresh path. And it is very useful indeed to have that other human being be an impartial and pastoral third party, who doesn’t even need to know your name unless you want him to know.

The theological basis for confession and Reconciliation comes in large part from Jesus’ statements to Simon Peter. The Gospel of Matthew 16:15-19 relays a scene in which Jesus talks with his disciples about the public confusion over his identity; Simon, the uneducated fisherman, is the first person to get it right, and he is given the new name Peter. Here I translate from the Greek. “He said to them, ‘But who do you [plural] say that I am?’ And Simon Peter answered and said to him: ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ And Jesus answered and said to him: ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but my Father who is in Heaven. And so I say to you that you are Peter [Petros: Greek for “Rock”], and upon this Rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hell shall not overcome it. I will give you [singular] the keys of the kingdom of Heaven, and whatever you bind on Earth will be bound in Heaven, and whatever you loose on Earth will be loosed in Heaven.’”

One wishes that this language of binding and loosing would be a bit less esoteric to the modern ear, but most theologians and scholars (and certainly the early and modern Church as well) think it refers to sins and forgiveness. Jesus gave to Peter, the Rock, an extraordinary power. This power was not intrinsic to Peter, but was given to him by Christ, and given by proxy to Christ’s church to carry on after Peter’s death (indeed, the binding and loosing language is used again in Matthew 18:18 in the plural form, to the disciples). From the practical standpoint of an everyday Catholic, what this means is that you can confess what is weighing you down, hear the consoling words of the prayer of absolution, and go your way feeling renewed and relieved. Absolution, which is the assurance of God’s forgiveness, cannot be denied unless it is painfully obvious that the penitent is not sorry at all — in which case, he/she would probably not be at confession in the first place.

At the conclusion of my run of seventeen or so years, I was interested to see how I would feel going into it. If I’m honest, I’ll admit that I nearly cut and run while sitting in the parking lot. In the end, though, my sense of curiosity — and my desire for that concreteness that my very intelligent Chekhov professor had talked about — got the better of me. After celebrating the sacrament, I left the church wondering whether I would again feel that lightness and freedom of conscience soon, as the Catechism says usually happens. It didn’t take long.

Copyright © 2012 Elizabeth Keck

The Rosary Mantra and the Saint Bodhisattvas

In Buddhism, mantras are words or groups of words believed capable of creating transformation. They are repeated many times with the assistance of prayer beads, which serve to keep track of the repetitions so that the person saying the mantras can meditate upon them more easily, rather than allocate mental space to counting. Prayer beads are used for similar purposes in many of the world’s religions.

In the Catholic faith, the rosary is not unlike a mantra, and praying the rosary also involves prayer beads to assist the person praying. The rosary begins with the Apostles’ Creed, which is followed by one Lord’s Prayer (Our Father), three Hail Marys, one Glory Be, and one Lord’s Prayer. After this initial part of the rosary comes the main portion, known as the “five decades” of the rosary. This consists of ten Hail Marys, followed by a Glory Be and a Lord’s Prayer. That set is prayed five times, which completes the rosary. When praying the rosary, a person may meditate upon what are known as the Mysteries; in addition, the person may meditate upon a special intention for which he or she is praying.

The rosary, in addition to being a prayer and meditation aid, can also be a sacrifice or an offering, made on behalf of a loved one or in the service of a certain goal. A rosary can be dedicated, for example, to a loved one in particular need of help, or said on behalf of world peace. This is not unlike the concept of the Mass as a sacrifice or an offering to God, in addition to its role as the community’s worship service. In the same spiritual vein is the Catholic practice of lighting a candle for a special prayer or in memory of someone; the candle burns as an ongoing representation of the prayer before God, long after the person who lit it has left the church or indoor/outdoor shrine and returned home. If the candle is lit at home, it burns as an ongoing symbol of the prayer until blown out. Candles are also lit for this purpose in Buddhism, Shintoism, and many other religions.

I recently visited a place called St. Anne’s Shrine in Sturbridge, central Massachusetts. St. Anne’s Shrine is a 35-acre plot of land that is largely woodland, but also hosts a full church, as well as a small St. Anne chapel — in which one can light candles — attached to the church. There is also a separate votive chapel called the Hall of Saints, and a small icon museum attached to a gift shop. The 35-acre grounds are consecrated to St. Anne, mother of Mary, and 10 of these acres hold walking trails. In various places are outdoor shrines and grottoes to Mary and to Anne (as well as a few other saints), and one can walk through outdoor Stations of the Cross. In one place, at the top of a giant stone staircase, stands a life-size white cross with a bronze Christ, overlooking all. The entire area is sacred ground.
Mary of Fatima

St. Anne, as I mentioned, is remembered in tradition as the mother of Mary, and is also my spiritual namesake; at Confirmation, I chose her as a personal saint and assumed the spiritual name Anne. Her daughter Mary, Jesus’ mother, is venerated in Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy as the Blessed Mother, the spiritual mother of us all, in accordance with Jesus’ words on the Cross to the apostle John, who stood beside Mary: “Behold, your mother.” When I visited the grounds of St. Anne’s Shrine, I felt a kind of sacred communion as I walked a very small portion of the grounds. The experience set me thinking more about saints, and who they are, and what made them who they are.

St. Anne with Mary

In another interesting confluence between the two religions, Catholic saints are not entirely unlike Buddhist bodhisattvas. In Buddhism, a bodhisattva is a person who is actively on the path to enlightenment, to buddhahood, and who has the enlightenment of all sentient beings as his or her goal. A bodhisattva is not content with only reaching buddhahood by him or herself; a bodhisattva chooses to devote his life to helping others reach it too. Likewise, a saint is not content with private spiritual exercises alone, but is always involved in the betterment of the condition of their fellow human beings, through constant prayer and work with the poor, the ill, the spiritually needy, the average person, or all of the above. In fact, there are three states prior to sainthood: Servant of God, Venerable, Blessed, and finally Saint. Mother Theresa and Pope John Paul II, for example, are both currently Blessed, and on the way to sainthood. In terms of the way a saint-to-be lives his or her life, it is telling that so many poor people around Calcutta, India became Catholic, not because Mother Theresa ever tried to convert them (that was never the focus of her work), but because she and her sisters devoted their lives to helping them — in what was one of India’s most desperate population centers — when even their own countrymen would not.

I can’t be completely sure, in a purely intellectual sense, whether the saints (or the bodhisattvas) can hear what we ask or act upon it; whether they can hear the offerings-up of our rosaries or our mantras; whether they know when we are standing before an outdoor shrine in a woodland of God’s creation, thinking a prayer and trying just to do the best that we can. I cannot be completely sure; but the breeze that passes over my face as I stand there, on its way to places I cannot know, and the giant Crucifix that stands at the top of the staircase and embodies the God who made that breeze possible, make me want to think so.

Crucifix Staircase

Copyright © 2012 Elizabeth Keck

The Wisdom of the Simple

Recently, I watched a PBS documentary on the tiny country of Bhutan, which is south of Tibet. The people of Bhutan live by the philosophy espoused by their leader, who, incredible as it might sound, seems to be the embodiment of Plato’s “enlightened philosopher-king.” He frequently moves among the poor and is transitioning the country to democracy. The philosophy in which he guides his people is known as “gross national happiness,” meaning that policies enacted in Bhutan should always be enacted with the goal of happiness for all the country’s inhabitants — and not just the human ones, but also the animals and the environs. This will in turn lead to greater human happiness.

Until only a couple of decades ago, Bhutan had no real interaction with the outside world. They also had very low crime, practically no drug use, and a population who overwhelmingly categorized themselves as “happy.” They were happy even though they were mostly subsistence farmers with no extra money to speak of. Then, with the opening of Bhutan to the global world, televisions and the Internet arrived — and with them, advertising. While most of the countryside population still does not have televisions or computers, many of the city folk do, and have begun to report a major decline in happiness. Crime has risen, as has drug use. Fast food joints — though no McDonald’s yet — have cropped up, and there is a higher rate of depression. This seems to be partially the fault of exposure to advertising, and to Western ideals of the “perfect” body and the “perfect” life. Bhutanese women, who previously measured themselves according to the traditional notion of the ideal woman — the strong, capable, wise person who holds her household together — now report feeling ugly as they compare themselves to sleek fashion models with perpetual hunger pains and thousands of dollars of product in their surreal hair. Ads for all the new “must-have” products can be seen anywhere in the urban areas, urging viewers to evaluate the material quality of their lives and find it lacking.

Now you might say: surely the subsistence farmers would be happier with these extra things and the money to go with them, since their lives are filled with backbreaking work and very little formal education. How could they truly be happy under those conditions? However, when the documentarist went to the countryside to interview these farmers who lived in huts with their families, the response seemed universal. They were happy. And they weren’t just saying it; you could see it on their faces. These were people with very little (if any) extra cash, with no modern gadgets or even running water, who spent entire days in rice paddies with yaks. Surprising, then, was their seemingly universal answer to the question: “Would you want more things if you could have them, and more money?” They answered no, as long as they continued to have their necessities and just a bit more for comfortable leeway. They did not want any excess.

More astonishing was their answer to the follow-up question: “Why do you not want more?” Seemingly as one, these simple Buddhist farmers responded, “Because if you have too many things, you’re not happy anymore. Instead you’re always worried about people coming and stealing your money or your things, and you want more. You think you don’t have enough and you become very attached to these things. So then you are not happy; it causes suffering.”

These were not people who had attended some local Buddhist seminary for graduate training. Yet there they were, espousing the quintessential Buddhist philosophy, which as a way of life frequently eludes scholars of religion, and being quite happy about it. They were espousing the philosophy that so many of their urban compatriots had perhaps unconsciously let slip away. Yet this philosophy is by no means limited to Buddhism. It can be found in most religions of which I am aware, including Christianity — or at least Christianity in its purer form, one not watered down by its affiliation with the majority culture in the West.

The farmers’ statements are also backed up by a major recent study showing that people, worldwide, report being at their happiest when they have enough to cover their basic needs, plus a little more for comfort. In one of the greatest paradoxes, people from all over the globe report that the more excess they have, the unhappier they are. The wealthiest nations have the highest suicide rates.

I believe that all this says much less about Buddhist philosophy than it does about the fundamentals of humankind. One does not need to be Buddhist to experience what these Bhutanese farmers are talking about. My Catholic grandparents experienced it, living out their lives in their small, but very solid, household. I experience it when I don’t feel the need to buy the latest gadget and throw out the earlier version that I only got last year, which still works perfectly. I experience it when I know that I really don’t want a bigger house — even if I could afford one — or a bigger widescreen TV that would mount on my wall, or even cable. (With that last one, I’m often met with incredulity). It is true that in our modern society, one cannot disengage from everything unless one enters a cloistered religious order. I do have my computer, my iPod, my cell phone, and a TV. But we can be content with what we have, and not think we need more because someone we know has a fancy car or an Internet TV. Let’s distinguish between what we want and what we need.

So there is wisdom in simple things. There is also wisdom in a simple approach to life and faith. When we become caught up in ourselves, things go from simple to complicated to a hopeless mess in quite a hurry. Pope Benedict XVI, in Jesus of Nazareth, Part Two, writes of St. Paul’s statement that even though he was an expert in the Law, he was ignorant of how God truly worked:

In view of his earlier self-assurance as a perfect disciple of the Law who knew and lived by the Scriptures, these are strong words; he who had studied under the best masters and who might reasonably have considered himself a real expert on the Scriptures, has to acknowledge, in retrospect, that he was ignorant…This combination of expert knowledge and deep ignorance certainly causes us to ponder….Clearly this mixture of knowledge and ignorance, of material expertise and deep incomprehension, occurs in every period of history….Are we not blind precisely as people with knowledge? Is it not on account of our knowledge that we are incapable of recognizing Truth itself, which tries to reach us through what we know? (Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, Part Two, pp. 206-207)

How we work all this out in modern society is anyone’s guess. Certainly no one is advocating that we renounce education. But as we educate ourselves, as we learn and as we seem to acquire more and more things — including, perhaps, a deceptive sense of our own self-sufficiency — we need to remember humility, simplicity, and happiness.

Copyright © 2011 Elizabeth Keck

The Meaning of Life (Or, Migrating Geese)

For years I said that mosquitos had no purpose. The entire goal of their lives, I proclaimed with indignation, was simply to fly around, steal other beings’ blood, cause massive annoyance and sometimes terrible disease, only to lay their eggs so the whole thing could begin again. What did they contribute, besides the occasional meal for frogs and bats? Surely they took far more than they gave. What could be the purpose of such a creature?

When I had time to extrapolate this premise out along its logical paths, I then saw that I could apply what I had said about mosquitos to quite a few other life forms. True, every life form exists within an ecosystem, and in theory the removal of any of those life forms would impact the ecosystem in some way. Remove those very mosquitos, for example, and you remove a food source for those frogs and bats I mentioned. Would that eventually lead to inordinate pressure on other insect stocks to make up for the lack of mosquitos? Quite probably. Or take bacteria. Some bacteria live in our guts and contribute in a vital way to our digestion; without them, we could not process certain foods. Some viruses are retroviruses, and I have heard that the development of our vocal chords for speech might have been the result of a retrovirus rewriting our DNA. And yet, some bacteria do nothing but sit in the middle of deep ocean volcanic vents, spending their days enjoying the heat and sulfuric gases. Some viruses do nothing but cause misery to their hosts and replicate themselves. Do these have a “purpose”?

Thinking along these lines, I eventually worked my way up to human beings. Most of us usually take it for granted that humans have some greater purpose, even if we do not know what it is. Yet don’t we really mean that we have some greater purpose for ourselves as sentient beings? For example, to learn as much as we can about the universe, or to practice compassion, or to further causes of justice, or to cure diseases, or to grow as much as we can spiritually. Those purposes are marvelous in themselves. But are they not quite human-oriented? Beyond the human species itself, such purposes do not make much of a positive impact. Moreover, if we examine ourselves with perfect honesty, it becomes indisputable that humans, of all the species, are by far the most destructive to themselves, to other species, and even to the planet we call home. So what is our “purpose”? What, in other words, is the meaning of life? Not just human life, but all life?

So I had this question in the back of my mind while riding in our car the other day with my husband. En route, we passed a flock of Canada geese grazing on a lawn; they were stopping for a bite to eat along their migration path. I remarked to my husband that what an uncomplicated life those geese led (though I grant that they do need to look out for predators trying to make lunches out of them). They eat. They sleep. They have goslings. They keep each other company. And when the weather changes twice a year, they know they need to begin their migration. So they fly to another place and repeat the cycle. Theirs seemed a deliciously simple life.

And that was when it occurred to me: The meaning of life is, simply, to be. What other purpose do all the species, including our own, have? Each species has developed its own kind of life, its own way of living. Within those schemas, the purpose is to live those lives. For the geese, it is to eat, reproduce, enjoy the sun and the water, and migrate. For the bacteria basking in the sulfuric gases of volcanic vents, it is simply to thrive there. For trees, it is to grow toward the sun and generate seeds to perpetuate more trees. For humans, it is to love, to learn, to create, to work, to eat, to think about whether a God or gods are at hand and what that God or gods want, and a myriad of other things too numerous to list.

The idea that the meaning of all life is simply to be was reinforced for me later in the day, when in the course of genealogical research I happened to come across my grandfather Louis’ birth record and death record juxtaposed online. There it was, his birth record, proclaiming with all the hope and all the possibilities in the world that this baby boy was born on May 11, 1911. All those years were ahead of him, and he was about to live them. And there right underneath it was his death record from 1992, signaling that he had lived those years and gone on to whatever then awaited him. And there are billions more birth records and death records, with more added every day, and they go on, and on, and on. This fact does not in any way marginalize all the events and loves and everyday wonders that occur in every life. On the contrary, it affirms them, as every life of every creature is lived within that meaning of simply to be.

Copyright © 2011 Elizabeth Keck

 

 

Apophis

Recently, I learned that an asteroid named Apophis, about 1,000 feet long (2.5 football fields), is scheduled to pass disconcertingly close to Earth on April 13, 2029. That’s a Friday, in case you were wondering. If the name “Apophis” sounds like it conjures images of doom, that’s because it is the Greek name for the ancient Egyptian god Apep. In Egyptian mythology, Apep was the god of darkness, evil, and disorder, and was known as the enemy of Ra (the sun god). Apep was thought to assume the form of a formidable serpent, who attempts to swallow Ra each night as the sun makes his nightly passage through the Earth’s middle. Each night, the god Set was the primary defender of Ra, consistently keeping Apep at bay. This is what NASA’s Near Earth Orbit program has to say, on a page entitled “Predicting Apophis’ Earth Encounters in 2029 and 2036”:

“The future for Apophis on Friday, April 13 of 2029 includes an approach to Earth no closer than 29,470 km (18,300 miles, or 5.6 Earth radii from the center, or 4.6 Earth-radii from the surface) over the mid-Atlantic, appearing to the naked eye as a moderately bright point of light moving rapidly across the sky. Depending on its mechanical nature, it could experience shape or spin-state alteration due to tidal forces caused by Earth’s gravity field. This is within the distance of Earth’s geosynchronous satellites. However, because Apophis will pass interior to the positions of these satellites at closest approach, in a plane inclined at 40 degrees to the Earth’s equator and passing outside the equatorial geosynchronous zone when crossing the equatorial plane, it does not threaten the satellites in that heavily populated region. Using criteria developed in this research, new measurements possible in 2013 (if not 2011) will likely confirm that in 2036 Apophis will quietly pass more than 49 million km (30.5 million miles; 0.32 AU) from Earth on Easter Sunday of that year (April 13).” http://neo.jpl.nasa.gov/apophis/

Bottom line: Apophis is coming close enough in 2029 to pass inside some of our satellites, but highly-refined projections based on a myriad of factors indicate that the possibility of impact with Earth does not exist at that time. It will return on April 13, 2036, with a chance of impact that NASA says is 1 in 250,000. Those odds are calculated based on the chances of Apophis flying through a gravitational “keyhole” during the 2029 pass. The keyhole refers to a narrow, specific area in space in which Earth’s gravitational field would alter the path of Apophis’ future orbit — if it passes through that specific area in 2029. NASA estimates the keyhole odds to be 1 in 250,000; but if it does go through the keyhole, it will slam into us in 2036 unless space agencies can implement one of the theoretical ways to deflect it. The good news is that Apophis is coming into range to be extensively analyzed by both optical telescopes and radar from Arecibo in late 2012-early 2013. At that time, much uncertainty about its future chances will likely be eliminated.

If Apophis were to strike, it would cause major devastation around the general area of impact, but NASA assures us that it is not large enough to wreak global catastrophe (of course, one wonders if NASA is taking into account the global effects of crop destruction). But in Earth’s history, there have been at least a few asteroids that did cause catastrophe on a global scale. The best known is the “K-T asteroid,” its name indicating the boundary of the Cretaceous and Tertiary periods — the Cretaceous was the end of the dinosaurs, and we are living in the Tertiary. Its 12-mile crater was discovered beneath the sea off the Yucatan Peninsula. The K-T asteroid was 6 miles long and eradicated 70% of Earth’s life — due to the initial impact and everything it incinerated, the shock wave, the tsunami, the global fires, the effects of debris in the atmosphere (including complete darkness for roughly 6 months), the acid rain, and the subsequent global temperature drop.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how every natural global catastrophe that we know about in the history of the Earth, while leading to widespread destruction for many contemporaneous species, ended up creating the conditions for other species to emerge, changing the face of global life over and over again. This was certainly the case with the K-T asteroid; before it hit and spelled the eventual end for most dinosaurs (the remaining ones becoming the ancestors of birds), mammals could not have gained a foothold. At the time before the asteroid, mammals were a meek group of small creatures no bigger than rodents; they were dinosaur snacks, and snacks for other large predators. When the effects of the asteroid made life so difficult for large land species that they went extinct, the small mammals had the free rein to thrive, evolve, and eventually lead to the life we see today, including us. Hard as it may be to believe, we are distant descendants of those tiny, industrious mammals that were only able to thrive when the dinosaurs were gone.

As humans, we tend to think of ourselves as the pinnacle of life; we take it for granted that we should keep multiplying ourselves upon the Earth unchecked. If our explosive population growth and the consequent tendency to destroy large swaths of other species’ habitats cause harm, then that harm is ultimately acceptable — because, after all, we’re humans.  Often, religious people tend to think that God instituted us to assume this position, and therefore we have license to do whatever we think is necessary to continue our explosion over the face of the planet; if that means a mind-boggling consumption rate of finite planetary resources, as well as the eradication of species that have been here for millennia, then so be it. We belong here, says this mentality, and the Earth belongs to us. God wants it that way.

But Genesis doesn’t just say “Be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 1:28). It also says that humans will rule (radah) over the Earth. This concept does not simply signify “dominion” in the English connotation, which so often is linked only with subjugation. It carries more of a sense of “sovereignty,” which, in biblical thought, included an ideal of wise stewardship. Have we managed our effect on the planet with wise stewardship? I think the answer to that is obvious. Our main concern is ourselves; everything else is several hundred miles down on the priority list.

For a species that is so intelligent, it isn’t particularly intelligent to think that ignoring our effect on the planet and its ecosystems will have no negative consequences for humans  (and I’m not just talking about climate change — don’t forget resource depletion). The planet itself has endured for billions of years and is oblivious to us; it is the life forms upon it that come and go for one reason or another. If any sequence of events leads to the eventual extinction of humans, the planet will still keep orbiting the Sun, and whatever life forms survive will adapt and give rise to new life forms. Just as life has always done on this planet. The sad part of that is having to admit that as of now, the planet’s ecosystems would be far better off without us. We are an incredibly destructive species. We abuse our adaptability and intelligence to act with little regard for species other than our own — this despite a professed belief on the part of most of us that God had a hand in the creation of those other species. Other species occupy only their own niches, without our ability to drive others to extinction, deplete resources, and literally change the surface of the planet. Since we do have those abilities, it becomes our responsibility to control them.

Copyright © 2011 Elizabeth Keck

Ascension Day

For Christians, yesterday was Ascension Day — the day in which the bodily ascension of Jesus Christ to Heaven is commemorated. Some churches offer special services on this day because of its solemnity, and certainly Catholic churches, for whom the Ascension is a holy day of obligation (although some dioceses transfer it to the nearest Sunday so that more people can celebrate it). I had already planned to attend one of these services with my daughter, but felt even more so after the area in Massachusetts where I live was hit with multiple destructive tornadoes and severe lightening storms for a stretch of hours the day before. Parts of my state were devastated – even parts of surrounding towns relatively close by – and my town had been listed as one of those that could very well be in a certain tornado’s path. As it turned out, my town escaped, but so many others did not. For our family, it was a terrifying near-miss. In Massachusetts, tornadoes touching down is a surreal experience.

I woke up the morning of the Ascension with profound sadness for those who had lost their homes, but also with profound relief and gratitude that my home and my family had been spared. This happy relief felt as if someone had infused a shot of extra, fresh oxygen directly into my lungs, and I wanted to give expression to it. My daughter and I arrived for a noon Mass.

As I mentioned before, it was a holy day of obligation; so naturally I assumed no one would be there. I was surprised, though, to find quite a few people there – perhaps others had woken up that morning sharing my thoughts. The readings for the day centered on Jesus’ ascension skyward in the sight of his disciples, including Acts 1:1-11, in which the disciples cannot stop themselves from continuing to gaze upward where he had gone. The text then says that two men in white (these would be angels) appeared beside them and asked why they continued to stand there and look upward, since “this Jesus will return in the same way” that they had seen him go. The Gospel reading concluded with what Matthew presented as Jesus’ last words before the ascension, telling his disciples, “Behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Mt 28:20).

It was this last reading that factored most heavily into the priest’s homily, which, as I had hoped, centered on the upheaval of the preceding day and its psychological aftermath. His message concerned the presence of God with us through such disasters, pointing out that while we all felt for those whose lives had been upended by storms in the Midwest, having a natural disaster hit geographically so close to home gives it a different meaning entirely. So, quite rightly I think, he connected Jesus’ words in Matthew to current events, noting that they apply to us just as much as the early disciples.

I did go to church because it was Ascension Day, but I also went to give expression of my thankfulness that my family and my house were preserved from the worst of the storms. I am aware that expressing my thanks to God also raises questions theologically. I know that weather is random and its own beast (I explored this in an early post,”The Fall-Guy for the Weather?”), and it is not God choosing to smite certain innocent homes with tornadoes and spare others. So I knew that expressing my gratitude to God might be inherently illogical. After all, I knew there was nothing special about me or my house that God would actively spare it while ignoring other homes that ended up destroyed. That is also why I hesitate to say that I feel blessed, because does that imply that God has blessed me but not others? That he has intentionally withheld blessing from others? I’m not comfortable believing that, and it seems arrogant to do so. In fact, I believe that God does not cause destruction but is very present with those who suffer from it, because I believe my faith when it tells me that God, in Christ, suffered both with and on behalf of humanity.

So if I believe that God did not choose some houses to be destroyed by the tornadoes and others to be spared, what is the logical basis for my thanks? To me, the answer is that there is none. But perhaps strangely, I am mostly comfortable with that. That knowledge will not prevent me from thanking God that I and mine were spared from a deadly natural disaster. It will not prevent me from praying that my house will still be there (as I did on Wednesday evening), nor prevent me from feeling profound gratitude to God afterward. I cannot identify any rhyme or reason to the destruction of June 1 in Massachusetts (or, for that matter, natural disasters elsewhere). But I will still be thankful. And I still believe that God is very much present with the suffering of those who have lost homes and even loved ones. If there is one thing about which Christianity is unshakably clear, it is that ours is a God who is acquainted with suffering, and who does not shy away from it.

© Elizabeth Keck 2011

Something New Under the Sun

In my last post, I talked about the differences in how “older things” are viewed in our culture as opposed to ancient cultures. I noted that our culture tends in large part to esteem what is new, while relegating older customs (or, sadly, older persons) to a past that need have no bearing on current preferences. I noted that ancient cultures, including much of what we find in the Bible, did the opposite: they largely valued the worth of inherited traditions, and tended to work within those structures even when innovating.

Yet sometimes we do witness things that represent the reverse. In the Bible, the famous lament of Ecclesiastes (Hebrew, Qoheleth) that “there is nothing new under the sun” echoes across the ages from a man who lived in a time when things rarely changed, and even more rarely changed for the better. But we also witness elements within our own culture doing the reverse of the above pattern. The most prominent example I can think of these days is the negative reaction among some to the stratospheric rise of new social networking — communication in the form of email, Facebook, Twitter, and texting. Over the last couple of years, we saw various talking heads appearing on TV to talk about what we are “losing” to these new forms of communication. Then we were treated (and continue to be) to written commentaries, or even whole books, on the virtues of the older forms of communication over against the deficits of the newer ones. Invariably, the argument is something along the lines of how people form better relationships and are more satisfied when their primary forms of communication are in-person visits and phone calls rather than written forms such as email, Facebook, or texting.

Let me say that in-person interaction is, indeed, usually the most preferable and satisfying. I don’t think that even the most ardent email, Facebook, or texting aficionado would dispute that in principle. But, as we all know, in-person interaction is not always possible, especially in a modern world where most people — certainly most people who have not yet reached middle age — have a number of friends and family who do not live in physical proximity. Sometimes, the physical proximity is there, but the open time is not. This may especially be the case with thirty-somethings and younger, who often lead frenetic lives filled with all kinds of disparate occupations and obligations as they try to establish their places in the world. Such people may indeed get together for coffee or a visit with friends, but during the times when they do not see each other face to face, they more and more rely on written-form, instant communication to keep in frequent touch. More and more, it is becoming clear that such forms of communication are surpassing the traditional phone call for the day-to-day comments one might make to someone else outside one’s nuclear family.

Someone I know terms this phenomenon “asynchronous” (or non-synchronous) communication. It is not intrinsically worse than the “synchronous” communication that comes with a phone call. Surely, there are certain interactions that are better over the phone: in-depth conversations, for example, that cover a broad range of topics too large to put in writing efficiently. Or when the parties involved are a couple who delight in nothing more than the sound of the other’s voice. But a phone call does require that both parties cease what they are doing and carve out the time necessary for synchronized communication, during which they can usually do nothing else. This is sometimes not practical for many, in a world with full and conflicting schedules. So people have turned to “asynchronous” communication, which allows them to keep up interaction and conversation with others more frequently — and in a freer fashion — than if they relied on the phone.

There is also the comment of my (then middle-aged!) high school history teacher, who, before anyone had heard of email, insisted that he disliked talking on the phone so much that he would not do it unless absolutely necessary. His problem was the odd and sometimes awkward quality of phone conversation: not seeing the other person’s face and getting that unspoken feedback while talking to them can feel strange, especially if there is a pause (and we all know there is nothing worse than phone pauses). Remembering his comment led me to think of something else: what if people talked on the phone all the time for decades not because they intrinsically would have preferred it, but because they had no choice — other than postal mail, in which case they would have to wait a minimum two weeks for a reply? Indeed, how could email, Facebook, Twitter, and texting have enjoyed such an unbounded explosion of popularity if they did not fulfill something that many people felt they needed or wanted? Clearly, these technologies do provide something that many people like, and it makes one wonder if it’s just because now there is a choice, and before, there wasn’t.

It is also amusing to remind ourselves that when phones were first invented, many people most assuredly raised the very same perspective that something would be “lost” with the new-fangled invention. Others, assuredly, were delighted. We see the same thing happening today. For that matter, one could amuse oneself further by considering that written communications such as email, when personal and not business in nature, bear more similarity to old-style communication by letter. I read an opinion piece by a teenager in my regional newspaper recently, in which the writer observed that when people around his parents’ age rail against texting as a legitimate form of communication, it’s usually just “adults not understanding what they’re looking at.” Another opinion piece (written by a thirty-something) noted that being on Facebook is like being “at a cocktail party, where there are all these different conversations going on.” That’s not a bad thing, even if an in-person cocktail party is ideal.

Perhaps we should take it as a good thing that electronic communication has blossomed so thoroughly — it could not have done so, after all, if people did not want to talk to each other. We do not live in the time of Ecclesiastes. There is, indeed, something new under the sun — even many things. And they’re not all bad.

© Elizabeth Keck 2011

Advent, Thor’s Hammer, and Cosmic Mystery

So instead of walking into our church to participate in Advent Lessons and Carols this past Sunday, I found myself standing at that very time in a Scandinavian gift shop buying the Hammer of Thor. All right, not an actual hammer, but a necklace and earrings shaped like the Hammer of Thor. Thor is the pre-Christian Norse storm god, the blow from whose mighty hammer was said to create thunder. Thor was also respected for his strength and for his ability to endure pain without complaint. I purchased the representations of Thor’s Hammer primarily because of my interest in ancient religions, and particularly ones that involve such fantastic mythology. But I also gravitate toward a broad personal theology that I indulge from time to time, although I identify as Christian.

We didn’t skip Lessons and Carols on purpose; it was just one of those things that sneak up on you. But the incongruity of the situation — getting waylaid on one’s way to Advent service by a Scandinavian shop selling the Hammer of Thor — prompted me to think, as I often do, about the confluence of certain religious tenets and how my own “personal theology” fits into both Christianity and the broader world of spirituality. I’m not the sort who will say that all religions are essentially the same — because, really, they are not. It is not even the case that all religions believe in a Creator (Buddhism, for example, does not, but instead holds that the universe has been eternally existing). Different religions emphasize different things, and they cannot be easily mashed together without overlooking and even disrespecting these things. However, it does seem clear that each religion is pointing toward something “else,” something more, something greater than what we can see with our immediate eyes in our immediate physical surroundings. It is for that reason that I tend to augment my Christian practice with contributions from other philosophies, which often are not contradictory in any case.

Each Advent, I am compelled to think about the mystery, and the apparent lunacy, of the idea that the Creator God decided at some point in history to enter human flesh and become one of us, in a profound and world-altering act to demonstrate God’s love for his creation and his identification with us. It must be a ridiculous idea that a being whose breadth and depth are so far beyond our own that we are hopeless ever to comprehend it decided to become one of us for a time. It must be ludicrous that in that “becoming,” this cosmic being intended to free his creatures from the shackles of their ongoing misdeeds, to offer redemption from those misdeeds, and in so doing to effect a cosmic demonstration both of love and the inherent sanctity of our created bodies. Inherently sanctified because, so Christians believe, God saw fit to “become” into one of those bodies, and our flesh can receive no higher recognition, no higher gift.

All these things sound preposterous. But they also possess (to borrow the now famous phrase) the “audacity of hope.” The truly bold, outrageous, no-holds-barred kind of hope that might just have a chance at success, by sheer virtue of its audacity. Such is the mystery that Christianity proclaims, and to which it joyously holds on with both hands. This, despite the fact that the biggest mistake Christian churches often make is to forget that what lies at their heart is not a carefully sorted-out array of systematic rules and provisions, but is essentially cosmic mystery.

One can believe in the truth of Christianity as itself; but of course, that is necessarily different from the system that developed around it, since finite humans need finite and inadequate ways to assimilate the infinite divine. Thus, “Christianity” as it is practiced, systematized, and understood by finite creatures is necessarily different from the cosmic truth upon which Christians believe their religion is based, and which it tries to express, and which only God can fully understand.

So that brings me back to Thor’s Hammer. I wear it as a symbol of strength, confidence, and endurance, which are traits that I value and try to emulate (not always successfully, but that is the nature of our imperfect being). Mystery is that wearing it can help me foster those traits within myself and express them outside myself. Mystery is that, according to our best astrophysicists, our entire universe — all the energy and matter that it now contains — existed as a superdense spot much smaller than an ordinary pearl about 14 billion years ago, and in response to some action that we do not understand, instantaneously exploded in an event we call the Big Bang, and has been expanding ever since. Mystery is that all the elements on the Periodic Table are, without exception, forged within stars like our Sun, and that our bodies are therefore quite literally made from stars. Mystery is that for its first billion years, Earth was a nightmarish, volatile place, home only to constantly erupting volcanoes, lava oceans, a constant barrage of meteors, and an atmosphere toxic to life as we know it. Mystery is that, by means we still do not understand, the amino acids and proteins of life found their quickening, and a bunch of cyanobacteria over millions of years became responsible for an atmospheric oxygen content that would allow larger life forms to come to exist. Mystery is that we know of over 100 billion galaxies, and each galaxy has about 100 billion stars.

Mystery is that we as a species feel an ongoing pull toward and connection with some greater world not entirely visible to our physical eyes, but known so ineffably to our hearts. Mystery is that we could be loved by a cosmic being who could have set all of the above into motion; that we can love other people as wholly, as beautifully, and as inexplicably as we often do; and even that we have come to know what love is.

© Elizabeth Keck 2010

The Age of Mediocrity

I have not been to the movies in quite some time. This fact stems not just from the reality of my life as the parent of a child who is too young to sit through a movie with us (and this will presumably change in a year or so, at least where Disney movies are concerned). It stems from the fact that, quite honestly, the majority of movie previews that I see on television provokes a response not much more enthusiastic than “eh.” When did this happen? It cannot be that I am becoming a stick in the mud in my advancing years, since I have also heard this complaint from several different quarters. It is that, over the last few years, most of the movies whose worthiness Hollywood studios try desperately to convince us of have been either pointless altogether, or firmly in the “eh” zone.

Sure, the 3-D landmark Avatar was a visual triumph, and it was fun to watch and it had a few compelling moments; but the only thing the storyline could lay claim to was a large recycle bin of other people’s ideas. Which we had already either seen or read before. Many. Many. Times. The last time I can remember going to a movie and having my socks blown off and my head put into an alternate state for days was when Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King came out and my husband and I went to see it on opening day at 10 am. The situation is not helped by the fact that I am less than excited to spend now over $10 per ticket going to the theater if the odds of my being underwhelmed are greater than 50/50. Yet I used to adore going to the movies, and my husband and I (before the arrival of our unforgettable progeny) could usually find several per year to which we flocked with great anticipation. But now the idea of truly enjoying that many movies at the theater in any given year seems draped in nostalgia.

As I write this, I am able to see, near my TV, the cover of the box set of Bogart-and-Bacall films, which features a picture of a famous scene from their first movie, To Have and Have Not. In those days, you could go to a movie for 25 cents and have a pretty good shot of seeing something amazing. Casablanca. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Treasure of the Sierra Madre. On the Waterfront. A Streetcar Named Desire. Key Largo. It Happened One Night. Rebel Without a Cause. Sure, they made bad movies back then too, but from where I’m standing, an awful lot of classics came out of that period. Fast-forward just a little in time to the 1970s and you still get All the President’s Men, Three Days of the Condor, Star Wars,  and those two movies by whose mindblowing standard others fear to be judged: The Godfather and The Godfather Part II. The latter is surely one of the greatest artistic achievements to emerge from the film industry. But the last five years or so, we too often get boilerplate action flicks and cookie-cutter romantic “dramedies.”

What does this have to do with anything? It seems to me that the wave of mediocrity in film making is just nestled amidst a much larger wave of even greater mediocrity in our society. Marvelous little one-off shops with delightful inventory are being replaced with mega stores whose inventory is often banal. You can still find treasures in those mega stores, but not as easily. This in turn brings me to “quality” of manufacturing. In an age where most products for sale are made in China or similar places with the cheapest materials possible, we’re saying “they don’t make ’em like they used to” a lot more these days, when holes form and threads unravel in our clothes often before we’ve stopped thinking of them as new. Things that used to be constructed in solid wood are now particle board that splits along seams, bends, and/or collapses. Electronics, which you’d think would come with some durability for the price, often abandon this world for the next with a little too much abandon.

Sure, there are still great books being written and sold, but stores are also full of shelves and shelves of drivel for which “mediocre” is a word of praise; yet they are somehow published. Pop music, in my opinion, has hit new lows over the last ten years. Those in the pop industry are no longer even required to possess a decent singing voice, since studio albums are now often doctored with AutoTune and live renditions are often atrocious. Even with the studio versions, mediocrity of content seems accepted fare. Yes, there are some real counterexamples, but the industry seems content with predictable plain potatoes. Small restaurants still exist, thank goodness; but they are being threatened by mega chains that too often churn out not delightful meals for a night’s getaway, but bland, mediocre fare that tastes as if it could have been shipped in from out of state.

There are many truly motivated, intelligent, hardworking college students out there, and they deserve respect for their effort. But it must be acknowledged that many others in the college populace, which long ago represented the shining motivated of our society, now do as little as possible as badly as possible to receive what should be a C, but is too often an A in an era of undergraduate grade inflation. Mere completion of an assignment, regardless of quality, can be regarded by the student as deserving of a high grade. This is not just the students’ fault; this sorry state of affairs is fostered by the new cultural environment that advocates merely “the college experience.”

I am not in general a negative person, and I dislike complaining. But I do think that a little perfectionism, a little drive, a little striving to make something as good as you can make it or to do something as well as you can do it, a little pride in one’s craft, does our species credit and makes us happy. And makes others happy as well. God has given us more intellectual and creative capabilities, and more potential, than any other species on this beautiful, volatile planet of ours. Let us not squander our gifts. Mediocrity does not become us.

© Elizabeth Keck