Thursday, June 25, 2009

"Decline to State"

Today brings me two years short of jubilee's half-century. I ponder how my always eclectic, unpredictable political outlook mirrors my religious one. Or should I say, as is the fashion among so many who can no longer affirm without doubt a Deity's omnipresence, "spiritual"? As a Californian, perhaps stereotypical, but even for one raised Irish Catholic, the motherland's no bastion anymore either. It's caught up with the rest of a Western Europe where French Muslims and Buddhists outnumber its Jews or Protestants, and probably practicing Catholics.

I opened a library find, Christopher Brooke's text and Wim Swaan's photos in "The Monastic World," a splendid 1974 coffee-table survey of monasteries 1000-1300. I had only seen this book once, a quarter-century ago in my dissertation advisor's office, and I'd longed for a copy. Working so long on medieval literature and culture, the religious aspect doubtless allowed me a place to ponder my own conflicts while progressing within academia. With my immersion into the Irish expressions in older and newer centuries of similar longings, it's also an ideal realm to continue my quest as a scholarly seeker of information and a personal pilgrim of transformation.

Perusing Swaan's atmospheric, often shadowy and austere, cloistered angles, I remembered my lifelong fascination with such lives lived, and such ruins remaining. I've barely visited any: Our Lady of Guadalupe in Oregon which I stumbled upon by chance so could only see for an hour; the Brigittines where I could get no farther than the visitor's reception to buy fudge: my destination before the Trappists sign caught my eye on the highway!-- and before I left my hasty Williamette weekend, a walk around Mount Angel Abbey where all the Benedictines might have been at the choir rehearsal on a silent Sunday afternoon.

Well, the Trappists were constructing their lovely new church; Brigittines stay cloistered; Mount Angel's was in use-- no chapel visits for me that Oregon stint. I've attended an uninspiring Mass at the local abbey over the mountains in Valyermo; I mean to get to the Camaldolese (however abandoned to Zen the hermits may be, they grabbed a great domain name, "contemplation-dot-com") above Big Sur for more than a look at the empty parking lot (albeit with splendid Pacific vista) another visit north soon. One of my five favorite films ever's Philip Gröning's three-hour immersion into time's passing at the strictest monastery in Catholicism, La Grande Chartreuse: "Die Gross Stille" or "Into Great Silence." My attraction early on towards testing the possibility of a clerical calling I cannot account for with any particular association, but as a fair-complected, retiring intellectual type, I've always liked the coolness of a church (like a library, which ties into monasteries neatly!) entered for shelter and quiet on a typically smoggy, glaring, harsh day as found generally here where I've passed nearly five decades.

Far from rural retreats, the first friars sought their apostolate in polyglot cities. Lately, after getting a haircut near St. Francis in Silver Lake, or before picking up Niall from school near rival St. Dominic in Eagle Rock, I've popped in for a short prayer. Not for myself, for I cannot say I "pray" to God in an orthodox sense now. My thoughts seek a wider source of mercy and compassion, however imagined or diffused. Whether this emanation's a projection or a presence, I cannot determine. Is that enough to assert as a belief, or does this define its denial?

So, I now ask prayers for others whom I love, and who ask God for love. When in the house of a another as a guest, you follow their customs. I make the sign of a cross inside a church; I wear a yarmulke and tallis as I first did when I stood before the Torah. I stand before the same God I did at my First Communion. I'm not as sure as I once was at seven that He's looking back at me, but I figure if so, then He's tolerant of my ambiguity. I'd be roasted as a heretic and expelled as a "Judaizer" depending back in those Middle Ages and many centuries or places since. Now, one consolation of my own post-Christian identity in a secularizing society's my ability protected to make such statements, to publish them, and to check out books on them.

I'd ask God to help my dying father, my demented mother-in-law, my newly found birth mother and her husband, my feckless sister and the parents of my friends who've also watched more often recently as the Misters and Missuses (no first names back then, a generational gap now apparent as our children's pals call us by the same names as our spouses and our parents call us, a curious evolution) we knew as teens now crumble and collapse in hospitals and hospices.

Aging as is marked today, I consider how my Facebook Friends and blog readers differ: among them I count a fine priest, liberal Jews, fervent Catholics, hybrid Buddhists. And lukewarm doubters, so human, those Christ warned He'd regurgitate. I note Facebook allows you to select your political and religious preference. "Decline to State" might apply for both boxes today. Politically, I've always been all over the place; religiously, it's been a long winding path that makes me wonder if I lack conviction or I uphold integrity. My own identification, as I've mused before on this blog, challenges easy summary. My baptism and formation in a strict Catholicism as hermetic and uncompromising as could be allowed within post-Tridentine, Los Angeles, blue-collar sprawl made me proud yet detached. I always have felt out of place within a lazy, tawdry, and shallow local culture that has little room for me.

Making my own way, I spent years in college and grad school in and out of the Church. After my nadir in my late-twenties, I found my dear wife and together we found our way towards where we could both find solace, within a carefully skeptical, somewhat ambivalent, but nonetheless confident Judaism as common ground for us to raise our sons. Still, living as we do in a non-Jewish neighborhood with a non-Jewish name and little on the surface to mark ourselves as apart from the quondam assimilated neighbors of little or no faith, or those of an newly evangelical persuasion or again traditional Catholic allegiance, we lack the surroundings that others use to fortify their beliefs. For us, we can go to shul respectfully or critique "Religulous" with equal equanimity, comfortable in our range of responses.

On the treadmill, I've been re-reading Rodger Kamenentz' "The Jew in the Lotus." When it came out in '94, I'd been immersing myself five years in Jewish learning; today-- I research the cultural and historical, literary and devotional detour that comprises how Irish people have read and misread Buddhism. Funding pending (my birthday horoscope promises: "Travel in October"), I'll give a paper at a formidably named "European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism" conference on "Irish Alternative Spiritualities of the New Age and New Religious Movements" (aka "cults" among the untenured). Given the level of discourse by the members' monographs and affiliations, I confess a need to learn more about dharma teaching! The organizer wrote me how confused his colleagues were by my typically allusive and, well, esoteric, proposal! It's a topic with nearly nothing written about it. This in grad school, me scaling steep, well-worn trails of medievalists in search of novelty, was usually seen as a bad sign for good reason!

One of the few times that we can assert that, yes, this has not been found before comes when charting verifiable exchanges at a high level of Jews with Buddhists, New Age wishes for Jesus' lost years in India aside. Kamenentz' encounters as part of the Jewish entourage mainly of rabbis who met in October 1990 with the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala exile to teach and to learn remind me of my own skewed trajectory across skittery spiritual terrain. Ram Dass, aka Richard Alpert and scion of a big macher's family, Tim Leary's equally squirrely LSD counterpart, a Hindu priest and a Hasid student (however bemusedly) now, tells the author that few of us are lucky enough to be born within the spiritual tradition right for us. Like our families, we find that the denominational milieu that forms many of us "pushes our buttons" too readily. Early in life, he notes how many Catholics chafe at the discipline but only later find the beauty in their faith. Similarly, as Kamenentz' book explores and Ram Dass parallels, the drift of many Jews into Buddhism shows the lack of "fit" within their ancestral identification and familial expectations.

Maybe I'm a political and religious misfit at heart. Facebook offers profile choices that remind me of their crossover potential for me. Is my political affiliation also my religious one? Distrusting Obama, disagreeing with McCain, disgusted with the Greens' nominee Cynthia McKinney, last fall I changed my party registration. Disappointed with Clinton, I had switched to the Greens as soon as they'd been approved for the California ballots in the mid-90s. However, I remained only to boost their numbers to the 100,000 minimum voters needed to stay recognized here. Their open-borders platform (as with the Sierra Club) conflicted with my environmental stance that favors fewer people in my fragile and overcrowded Golden State. Greens, as many progressives, seem admirable for ideals more than practices.

Ideologically and devotionally, intellectually and bibliographically, I wander, suspicious by nature of traps. Maybe it's inherited Fenianism. Not that current representatives of that ideal have been any more coherent than the Greens' nominee.

My wife's commented on how my blog and my Amazon reviews (over a thousand now: go and rate I implore thee) show, as I intended, my interests as they ebb and flow. The blog indexes my tags, and I can see how beneath the book reviews that top it and the bilingual Irish-language ones that appear every few days, Buddhism's now a head ahead of Judaism, with belief nearby and Irish literature, Christianity, and Catholicism, not to mention Wales and surprisingly "sexuality" clustered high too.

Categories keep us apart and organize our thoughts. Even though if mine as blogged, they run together as often as the "labels for this post" boxes do below my entries. Such may be my spirituality to match my bookshelves.

I went to a library where I'd never been. Wearing an old t-shirt with large Hebrew lettering on the front: "tikkun" or "healing/ repair." Near Jackie Robinson Park, Pasadena's La Pintoresca Branch may acclaim its local baseball hero who broke another category over sixty years ago, the color barrier in the majors, but inside, I couldn't find what we still demand: discrimination in the positive, bibliographical sense. Keeping track of what needs to be kept apart! I had no idea where the adult fiction section lurked, although a children's summer art workshop may have blocked those shelves.

So, in the religion section, on a lark, I found a thin, dated children's book on Hanukkah as its Judaica in total; no Buddhism at all (they're neighbors in the Dewey Decimal System unless Hinduism shoulders between, which here it did not; Islam loomed large) but lots of inspirational lore, such as "Oh God! A Black Woman's Guide to Sex and Spirituality." Thin books tend to be found in the 200s: Christians choose covers with scenery and/or crosses, Buddhists get the Asian versions of the former element artistically rendered with a stolid statue or the ubiquitous maroon and saffron garb of the Dalai Lama XIV, but Jews aspire towards thickness-- unless in the form of joke books.

P.S. Amazing how an image hunt for "irish jewish joke book" (a paperback I own) shows my blog, at #9 for "Irish Erotic Art" (a blank book I do not own). Telling how quickly this search finds anti-Zionist placards, a cartoon of the Pope yelling at an Arab, and skillets of latkes. Apropos reason I left the Greens: nominee McKinney's hatred of Israel. Lacking joke book's cover, asking Dutch pardon (I love the world's best beer brewed under license to Trappists there and among their Flemish cousins; buying it should constitute a charitable deduction) here's an ecumenical substitute. Not sure if it's as funny as "Oh God!"(book/film).

Credit: Archives of Irish America. Mick Moloney Collection of Irish-American Music and Popular Culture (AIA 31) Part IV: Irish Americana. It's named for that wonderful archivist and musician I actually met once and exchanged if not a joke a small witticism with! He took it with good grace, given my 'goyische' delivery. Caption warns, dutifully: "Twenty-one jokebooks, or comedic material, make up Series D. In addition to Irish-American subject matter, these contain hackneyed stereotypes about Jewish, African-American, and German immigrants such as Jew Jokes and Job Lots (Box 1, Folder 8)and The Comical Sayings of Paddy from Cork (Box 1, Folder 15)."

No comments: