Thursday, October 30, 2008

what do you Do?

If my identity depended on my occupation, I would not have much of an existence to write from at the moment. But since I refuse to be fenced in by such a narrow self-definition, I am free to live anonymously. I am very happy to do so.

So what do I do in this year off from working? My daily routine is flexible, but in general it is divided between writing, schoolwork, cooking, reading, and prayer and meditation.

In order to fight the upcoming winter blues, I usually do some lying meditation and go to be bed early, around 8 or 9 o'clock. I get up early too, anywhere between 5 and 7 o'clock, make tea or coffee, and do the dishes. Then I try to do twenty minutes of sitting meditation. I will eat some breakfast and then on Mondays and Wednesdays will go to tutor at St. Vincent's until 11:30. Then I will come back and do some pleasure reading, or maybe reading for school. I've also been doing some work on the bus.

At least four days a week I ride my bike to the coffee shop in Mt. Airy to log in a few hours of work on the book, and to drink coffee. On the way back I will stop at the Acme and pick up some groceries, loading them into my saddlebags, or go to the post office, or run errands.

Tuesday nights I have class; other nights I will read, write, and fill in with meditation during the times when I might be tempted to watch tv or get into trouble. I have also started cooking again, since I have the time, which saves me money on eating out and helps in gaining back the twenty pounds I have lost in the past few months. I made a sweet potato pie recently, and an 18-bean with bacon soup; both turned out well.

My days do not feel rushed, nor do I feel the pressure of a lack of time. I will most likely start working again after I graduate in the Spring, when I will not be in school. I feel I have a good balance now and I hope to maintain that. Letting go of a lot of projects has kept me from always "doing" something, leaving me free to do nothing in particular.

One of my favorite stories is about a fisherman who was leaning against his boat on the shore, napping. A businessman saw him and asked, "why are you not out fishing?"

The fisherman replied, "I have caught enough fish today."

The business man replied, "Yes, but if you go out and catch more fish you will make more money. Then you can buy a bigger boat and catch even more fish and make more money."

"Then what would I do?" the fisherman asked.

The businessman tugged at his lapels. "Then you could enjoy yourself."

The fisherman replied, "What do you think I am doing now?"

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Bird By Bird

"Let go of your failures and write something great." --Natalie Goldberg

When I took a writer's vacation last year in Juarez I was beginning work on a book about the bicycle as a model for living. I was going to title it something like "The Humble Machine," or "Life as a Bike," and structure it is a compilation of reflection essays. It has since been shelved and I will probably at some point rewrite it as a children's book. But for now it is composting on the "to do" heap while I work on finishing Kissing the Sun.

When I began work on Kissing the Sun, the chapters were long and rambling. I've scrapped most of the original manuscript in favor of this shorter, more reflective format, originally modeled after the Don't Sweat the Small Stuff books. I think this is the only way it is going to work. I get distracted and overwhelmed very easily and need to write in a way that takes little bites out of the project, one word at a time. But I need a punchy, uncomplicated format to move things along.

When I see huge structures,--whether it is the Basilique du Sacre Coeur in France or the Comcast center here in Philly--I marvel at how such structures are built. Then I remember, they are built one brick at a time, like that expression "a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step." I tend to look straight to the finish, the end result, and quickly conclude that such a feat is far to great to be completed. And so I am defeated before I even start.

When I moved out of my apartment last month and had all my possessions packed into my bus, I became overwhelmed at how it would all fit. After a few weeks I had time to go through a lot of things, toss some things, and find a place for everything else. It was a lot all at once, and so I was forced to take things one ste at a time.

When I need help, inspiration, and support in writing, I turn to two of my favorite writers: Ann Lamott and Natalie Goldberg. Every time I read Lamott's Bird by Bird and Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones, I regain my center, hone my style, and remember not to take myself too seriously. Goldberg's zen approach keeps everything in focus, William Carlos Williams style, and embraces the absurd. The chapters in both of these books are short and that is how I have begun to restructure Kissing the Sun. It has gone from all-you-can-eat buffet to dim sum.

My life has been in the shadows of big changes and weighty decisions lately. After writing to the Abbot at Christ in the Desert, it may turn out that I will not be admitted to the community on account of my being bi-polar. He also said that most monasteries would not consider me because of this. I have always thought that this was where my life was headed; with this door about to close in my face, I've had to start looking around at alternatives. Set to graduate in May, I have no idea what kind of job to look for. Staying with Chris has been great, but I am left wondering if I should be looking for my own place.

I have finished the Introduction and one chapter of Kissing the Sun. I am a few miles in to this journey, with a long way to go. The only way I am going to reach the end is one step, one bird, at a time.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Solar No Mo'

I tested the solar panel again and it was only reading 6 volts in the sun. Well shit. I scanned the sheet of 144 cells, arranged in 12x12 rows and remembered the time when a light would go out on the christmas tree and we had to find the burnt-out bulb by going through every one of them on the string.

The cells themselves are so fragile, my soldering so shoddy, and with winter approaching and the bus only getting a few hours of evening sunlight, I decided it was best to dismantle it and put it up for sale. I sold the cells along with the controller, inverter, and four of the 35ah batteries.

This leaves me with a 350 watt inverter and a 60ah battery pack. The nice thing about this pack is it is small enough to be carried. After the third day in the bus I will take the battery inside to charge, or charge it while I am writing at the coffee shop. It will be fine for supplying some juice for my computer and the heater.

It's a shame the solar setup is not going to work out, but at least i had the experience of putting it together myself. I think I will start my "retreat" this week.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Poem For the Night


I watch this flame pass
from match to wick,
gently stepping over
a great divide.
This flame and I
are not so different:
it comes into being from nothingness;
it eats and grows, smokes, and rests.
It gets angry,
destroys homes,
consumes flesh.
Sated, it becomes calm,
retreats into coals,
smoldering through the night.
by a piece of string,
it makes its home in a cave of wax.
It chases the shadows away
and stands watch through the night.
It sways in ecstasy,
and dances in the darkness
before it is extinguished
in the blink
of an eye.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Going Nowhere

I have come back to Centering Prayer as a means of communing with God. I have heard it said that the difference between prayer and meditation is that prayer is talking and meditation is listening. Since I am going through an existential season and feel I have nothing of worth to contribute to a conversation, whether it be with God or anyone else, I have resigned myself to listening.

To my practical mind, prayer is such a worthless endeavor. It is good I ignore my practical mind from time to time. Still, spending minutes and hours listening to nothing (which is everything) and everything (which is nothing) puts the busy mind to the test.

There is a story of an old peasant who used to sit in a chapel for hours and hours, doing nothing. The priest asked, "What are you doing all these hours?" The old peasant answered, "I look at him, he looks at me, and we are happy."

How I listen is this: I lie down on my mat, or sit, and get quiet. Then I focus by hanging on to each breath, rolling it between my thumbs, looking for clues that God might have left. I pretend that a lion is prowling around looking to eat me. Knowing each breath could be my last, I become taunt as a bowstring, careful not to set off any vibrations. I hear things in the background--footsteps, cars, the shattering of rain drops--but I fail to experience them as a unified whole; if I tune in to one sound it is at the expense of all the others.

It is not long before thoughts--the most ridiculous thoughts--appear. I climb aboard one and drift away mindlessly, comforted by the diversion. Before I know it, though, I am downstream far from where I started and so I abandon ship and make my way back. I spend much of my time in meditation leapfrogging to and from my place of Being. If there is any progress to be made in sitting with God in silence, it is infinitesimal, like the movement of the earth's plates or the melting of the ice caps.

This kind of prayer seems like a long, arduous route to God. Without a concrete destination, how does one gauge one's progress? This kind of mind must be checked at the door. There is no beginning, no end. When did you start breathing? Have you ever stopped? Drawn as the first and last, the Alpha and Omega can be found in a single breath.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Hermitage Update

The hermitage is now residing in Germantown. I have decided this is a better place since the lot it is in is right behind Chris' house. The lot in Fairmount was a tempting offer, but I feel better about having Ole Green close by. I am grateful for a lot at all.

I spent the afternoon cleaning up inside the bus. I got the sink set and the sand filter in place underneath the countertop. The 3 foot tall carbon/sand-filter urinal is all set to be peed in as well, which makes the place feel much more habitable.

I tested the solar panel a couple days ago; it was reading 15 volts in indirect light, which I was happy with. The sun is partially blocked by the house, though it does get a few hours of direct light each day. I don't know if that will be enough for my needs, since I am hoping to use the electric heater and burner to offset the propane use. At this point in the season, the panel will have to be angled at aproximately 65 degrees. My hope was to not have it visible from the roof of the bus, but at that angle, it will definately be noticeable. In the neighborhood I am in, I'm not sure that would be a great idea.

The less environmentally sustainable option would be to bring the smaller 60ah pack in the house to charge. This pack should be able to supply electricity for the three days out of the week I am planning to be in it: one meal on the electric burner and one hour of electric heat per day.

I would like to start the Thursday-Friday-Saturday retreat schedule next week. Really, though, I feel more like ten year old in an adult's body, getting excited to camp out in the backyard.
"This world's a life sentence."
--Nikos Kazantzakis, Zorba the Greek

Monday, October 20, 2008

Notes From the Underground

"I'm a sick man...a mean man. But, actually, I don't understand a damn thing about my sickness; I'm not even too sure what it is that's ailing me. But I ask you, who on earth goes around showing off his sickness, and even glorying in it? It's indecent, vulgar, and immoral to live beyond forty! Who lives beyond forty? Fools and good-for-nothings."

I will never grow to be anyone of any real importance. I will never do great things, will never say anything of any great significance; no one will read about me in books, or quote me in research papers. My life is meaningful only in that I ascribe it meaning. It is like a woman agreeing to hire a man to organize her bookcase, and then asking him to carry it out to the dumpster. The work of Sisyphus.

Is it enough to work to eat, to sleep, to run out the clock? Is this any less meaningful that the composer of ballads, the social revolutionary? "Our lives are just this little nonsense thing..." I need to solicit reasons for continuing on this treadmill to nowhere. Religion has provided some good ones, if only to help me keep my eye on the beyond, incite a fiery anticipation for the grave, acquitted of this life sentence. My family's enjoyment of my existence is another; if nothing, my existence is an obligation.

If I spend my days eating, sleeping, and trying to love, I would not have a very strong resume. People would say, "you have not done very much with your life." And so I would adopt various activities and pursuits in order to gain some clout, prove them wrong, give my parents something to brag to my relatives about. And in doing so I would fill my life with meaning and divert my attention from the flickering flame on the horizon that promises to consume me, from the seeping sky that threatens to blot me out, and from the salty arm of the sea, reaching to work me back into the silt. When they come for me I will look surprised, and wonder, "from where have you come? why are you here?" And I will be greeted with the empty echoes of Time's silent messengers.

Morning Warm Up

When I was younger, 9 or 10 years old, my dad and I would drive up to Wilkes-Barre to visit my great aunt Martha. She had wild white hair like a mad scientist and would take in lots of stray cats. One day she was singing Ukranian church hymns very loudly and walking around the kitchen, tossing cat food into the air like a flower girl at a wedding, and one piece flew right into my dad's coffee with a splash.

There was a boy down the street I used to play with; he was my "seasonal" friend. I remember going up to his room to listen to Michael Jackson's "Thriller."

I also remember that we liked to blow things up. He had some kind of firecracker or explosive device he had been saving and we decided to blow a hole in a fence near the baseball diamond. We planted it and ran and it exploded with a loud BOOM, and we didn't stop running til we got back to the house.

When I got home I was determined to blow up some things on my own home turf. I went to the public library and asked the librarian if they had any books on bombs. "You mean like a history of the bomb?" she asked. "No," I replied "how to make them." She did not appreciate my curious mind and showed me the door.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Thou Shalt Not...

...dress up for church,
lest you alienate the wretch
slumped in the back,
wearing his only pair of clothes,
smelling all stank,
making everything unclean.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Letter to Abbot Philip Lawrence, O.S.B.

Rev. Dom Philip Lawrence, O.S.B.
Christ in the Desert Monastery
Abiquiu, NM

17 October, 2008

Dear Fr. Lawrence,

My name is Rob Marco. I made a two week vocational visit to C.D.M. in the summer of 2001 and was fortunate enough to have met and talked with you and some of the other monks. I have never forgot about Christ in the Desert since that time, and have thought about your community often.

I have been discerning religious life for the last ten years and am at a point in which I feel I am ready to make a commitment to a community. I had been on the fence for a number of years about getting married, and I was in fact engaged at one point. But I don't think marriage is what will make me most happy and contented. I also know that in terms of careers, I want to work in the service of the Lord, "all the days of my life."

I feel my motives are pure and that I (as St. Benedict says) "truly seek God." Having visited many communities in the last decade, I do not hold any romantic preconceptions about monastic life. I know it can be ordinary and community life can be trying. I also know marriage is not disimiliar, and that single life has its own burdens. I feel celibacy is a gift and one that I may be called to; I enjoy the freedom it offers me to pursue God unencumbered.

While I have spoken with my spiritual director about the possibilities of living an eremitic life, I do not want to be one of those "despicable" monks St. Benedict refers to who "make their own desires their law." Community is difficult for me, but I also feel it is necessary for proper formation.

I am not without faults. I have a strong independent streak and taking orders and living with others does not come without some strain. Then again, I am not fond of vegetables or exercise, but I know they are ultimately good for me.

I have also been diagnosed with bi-polar disorder. I take medication regularly and am in close contact with my doctor. I have been healthy and doing well since my diagnosis five years ago, though I do feel it is something relevant to disclose. I can assure you I am responsible in managing my mental health, just as someone with a diabetes or a heart condition would be expected to be responsible about their physical health. While many times a burden, my illness has also been a source of grace, engendering empathy and understanding for those who are suffering. I have had many 'dark nights,' which have been indispensable to my spiritual formation. I would be more than happy to send letters of reference from my doctor and spiritual director attesting to my state of mind, if you like. I have no physical disabilities or limitations.

I do have many gifts as well that I would hope to share with the community. I am a competent tailor and gardener, cook, writer, and artist. I am good with computers and knowledgeable in electronics and renewable energy. I recently converted a small school bus into a zero-energy hermitage, built from recycled material and complete with solar panels and greywater recycling. It has been featured on MTV and in The Philadelphia Weekly and The Daily News as part of their "green" issues.

I am presently living in Philadelphia and finishing up my last year of graduate work in Theology at Villanova University. I will be 29 in March, and expect to graduate in May. After this I would like to visit Medjugoria and maybe travel for a few weeks. After that time, however, I am requesting to be considered for admittance to C.D.M. as a postulant. I wanted to write before the spring to see if this is a reasonable request so I can plan accordingly. I have given away and sold most of what I own following Jesus' words "if you would be perfect, sell what you have and give it to the poor." I am ready to follow God and hope you will consider my desire to make Christ in the Desert the place where I might live out that call.

I anticipate your reply.


Rob Marco

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Poem for the Night

1842: Letters From Prison

The window is cracked,
as if the ghosts were trying to escape
this choleric box.
They slip down to Germantown Avenue
to drink and dance,
and run the night.
I might have come,
if I hadn't been poisoned by
this thick night.
No ducts in the ceiling.
No chisel in the cake
(no cake).
Just a quiet visit
from resident shadows--
this borrowed cell.
Nails on stone,
a quiet crescendo
meant for sympathetic ears,
unused kindness
about to expire.

Breaking the Curse


Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Escape from Egypt

The merciless parring down continues. The bus is finally to the point where it can be walked around in; there is room for everything. It is much easier to have it as a retreat house than a full-on home at this point, and I am looking forward to spending three days a week there soon. I am even going to construct a electricity-free refrigerator so I can have more juice for heating!

I was clearing out my file cabinent yesterday when I came across old notebooks and journals, letters, etc. I was tempted to keep them, but could not give a good reason why I should. Ekhart Tolle said, "I have no use for the past." Things that were once downstream are now upstream. If I were to turn my boat around and paddle upriver, I had better have a good reason for it.

So I put them in the recycling bin without looking at them. I have no use for the past...

Homer and Cleft Kitty being friends

Monday, October 13, 2008

Season 4 of It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia is the best season yet...and its finally on Hulu!

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Poem For the Day

This Elusive Pleasure

is a trite bone.

I would hope to offend God
by toeing the cusp

as long as possible.
Stretching the aching anticipation

into eternity and entering
Heaven through the back,

forsaking my will,
and cashing out my worthless tender.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

When Prayer Becomes Work

I'm not too fond of work; I engage in it out of necessity. So when prayer becomes like work, I need to come up with a way to continue doing it despite its distastefulness.

More and more, I have less and less to say to God. Thankfully no words are necessary. Why speak when you don't have to? Being unencumbered by words, I find my next stumbling block to be sitting (or kneeling). I don't like to sit, at least not for long periods. At the monastery they would allow us to do different forms of meditation--sitting, walking, or lying. I chose lying whenever I could. Sometimes I fell asleep, which is why they discourage this form. But if I could do it at a time of day when that was not a risk, I found I was spending less time concentrating on the pains in my back and knees and more time just being still. I had heard St. Francis used to pray lying down.

So, when I go to pray now, I lye down on my mat and don't move, just following my breaths and waiting in vigil in case God decides to speak. It feels less like work than sitting, and I can be dutiful about it, carving out time in the day at intervals. I need a method of inviting more prayer in so that it becomes habitual--the silence (or the conversing), being attuned, all the things that do not come naturally. I think this is the only hope of achieving that elusive state St. Paul refers to: "praying without ceasing."

Friday, October 10, 2008


I'm reluctant to write about this offensive subject, but it has been bothering me, and hard to put a finger on unless I flush it out into the open.

I struggle with envy a lot. So when a friend of mine was recently diagnosed with cancer, I was not surprised when this chief sin pushed its way into the picture. I was and am concerned for his well-being but cannot help being envious of his diagnosis, and harboring disdain for my own.

First came jealously of the diagnosis itself. Innocent people victimized by a merciless disease, cancer elicits sympathy and understanding. Cancer is an 'other,' something that can be fought against. It incites hope, and purpose, and inspiration.

Largely, though, it is the prospect of a possible early death that I envy the most. Cancer is a death sentence with the possibility for moratoriums and acquittals. Mental illness is a life sentence. There is nothing to kill, there is no foreign invader; the destruction comes from within. It is a holistic disfigurement of the self. Those who do attempt to kill off what feels like a torturous parasite are able to do so only by killing the physical self, which in the face of the bleakest despair and agony, is not an uncommon occurrence.

I've always been fascinated by the story of Phineas Gage, the railroad worker who was struck through the skull and brain by a 1 1/4" iron rod and survived. It's amazing he survived and regained his mobility, but I was struck more by how his personality degenerated after the accident to such a degree that his friends said he was "no longer Gage."Gage was not made a better person as a result of his injury; quite the opposite--he became a monster. Mental illness works in a similar way: it makes monsters out of people.

I cannot morally support euthanasia. I hate the fact that I can't. Why do we fight so hard to stay in this wretched world? Everyone has their reasons, I suppose. I wish I had more. When I think about having to continue living, day after day, for another 40, 50, 60 years, I am overcome by weariness. I am envious of cancer's ability to bring out the best in people, to incite appreciation for each day, love for living, gratitude, by providing an estimated end date.

Depression, in particular, seems only to bring out the worst. It incites feelings of helplessness and confusion, anger, embarrassment, and hurt in friends and family put in its wake. It puts distance between friends and strains marriages and family life. There is no concrete enemy to rally against, no cure to be raced for. No end in site.

I feel very guilty about this self-absorption, like I am sinning against my friend. I guess that is why this is a confession. If I could trade places with a dying person, someone maybe who is not yet ready to leave this world, I would. I would only hope I would be given the opportunity. Maybe then my expiration would be less an act of disdain for living in this world and more an act of love. After all, "there is no greater love than for a man to lay down his life for his friends."

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Between Heaven and Hell: Madmen: Vita S. Antoni

St. Antony of Egypt was a madman, no two ways about it. The following are passages from St. Athanasius' 'Life of Antony' which help to support the claim:

"He had a garment of hair on the inside, while the outside was skin...And he neither bathed his body with water to free himself from filth, nor did he ever wash his feet nor even endure so much as to put them into water, unless compelled by necessity." (209.47)

"He felt ashamed even to see himself naked." (212.60)

"At night they saw the mountain become full of wild beasts, and him also fighting as though against visible beings." (210.51)

"He often continued [vigil] the whole night without sleep; and this not once but often, to the marvel of others." (198.7)

"His food was bread and salt, his drink, water only." (198.7)

"A rush mat served him to sleep upon, but for the most part he lay upon the bare ground." (198.7)

"Antony departed to the tombs, and having shut the door, he remained within alone." (198.8)

"He hurried to the mountain, and having found a fort, so long deserted that it was full of creeping things, he descended as into a shrine, and abode within by himself, never going forth nor looking at any one who came, and received loaves, let down from above, twice a year." (199.12)

That anyone should imitate such a man would warrant their own insanity, as sanity is regarded in the eyes of the world...

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Training Day

Nicotine withdrawl has not been as bad this time around. I'm keeping tabs on my vices, though I am indulging in Chris' espresso machine, which has been a real treat. My back is going to have to get used to sleeping on a plywood bed without a mattress; I am hurting this morning. Just one of many things I need to toughen up on. At least it keeps the girls away. Thanks to Michelle for the quote.

"There's a line in the picture where he snarls, 'Nobody tells me what to do.' That's exactly how I've felt all my life." --Marlon Brando

Monday, October 6, 2008

New Digs

Germantown is now home for a while as I try to get the bus in shape for the winter. Thanks goes out to my friend Chris for the roof. The bus should be down in Fairmount in a couple weeks, at which point it will become my 'Winter Hermitage.' Stay tuned.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

A Divine Madness

I am planning to use this passage from Plato's Phaedrus to introduce my book, but I think it is also worthy of its own posting:

"There is also a madness which is the special gift of heaven and the source of the chiefest blessings among men. This divine madness is of four kinds - the gift of prophecy, religious ecstasy in which the soul is purified from sin, poetical inspiration, and lastly the madness of love.

I might tell of many other noble deeds which have sprung from inspired madness. And therefore, let no one frighten or flutter us by saying that temperate love is preferable to mad love, but let him further show, if he would carry off the palm, that love is not sent by the gods for any good to lover or beloved. And we, on our part, will prove in answer to him that the madness of love is the greatest of Heaven s blessings, and the proof shall be one which the wise will receive, and the witling disbelieve."

Introduction/Chapter 1: A Great Darkness (cont.)

There are many problems with this reasoning. The first is that it undermines contemporary research in the field of neurobiology, which is seeking to make a somatic connection between brain chemistry and psychological disturbance. To talk about such research would be beyond the scope of my expertise. But the general idea is that the field of neuroscience is making what was once unknown--the cause of mental illness--known, in scientifically quantifiable terms.

The reasoning of Taylor et. al. seems reminds me of those who held (and hold) fast to the principals of Newtonian physics in the wake of a shifting scientific paradigm. The assumption that matter is unchanging and predictable has been proven to be false--and yet some people would contest such a claim on "historical" grounds. Taylor et al make such a claim when they state that "it [the mental disorder] is not a real disease as disease is historically defined."

I make reference to such a book and its accompanying theory to illustrate what I see as a similar problem with the public (and clinical) perception towards mental illness: that it is a "problem" to be "fixed."

This book is my attempt to challenge that presupposition by placing mental illness in a different paradigm: that is, judging it by spiritual, rather than psychological, criteria. In doing so, the question is no longer about what is normal, but about what is good and pleasing to God.

This of course carries with it its own assumptions about what is desirable or undesirable, good or bad. As I mentioned earlier, I am a Catholic Christian, and I write unapologetically from a Catholic Christian perspective. Such an affiliation carries with it the responsibility for, and the acceptance of, an established code of conduct which has developed over centuries by the Church. It rests on the assumption that the Church is guided and protected by the Holy Spirit. The life, example, and teachings of Jesus that have been passed down in written form and through oral tradition are the cornerstone on which all other teachings of the Church are built.


"God does not see as human beings see..."

In some ways Taylor et. al. are right to be critical of modern psychology's attempt to make the DSM a kind of modern-day Bible. When people live by psychological standards and attempt to abjugate responsibility for disordered behavior by playing the "illness" card, society becomes sick indeed. Really, Taylor et. al. just want to call a spade a spade. The problem is they are using their own man-made standards (albeit scripturally inspired) for judging the conduct of others.

I use the example of Abraham and Isaac to illustrate this point. For Abraham, "uprightness" meant fidelity to God: when God says jump, you jump. So when God made the request for Abraham's only son, Abraham did not hesitate.

The rational objections are limitless: why kind of God would call for such a thing? What does God have to gain from such an action?

The thing is, our God is not an especially rational God...or, at least, He is not required to be. Soren Kierkegaard, regarded as the father of Christian existentialism, seized upon this unnerving aspect of Christian living to formulate his ideas on what true Christian faith was. He regarded it as something completely beyond the scope of reason, of convention, of certainty. One must abandon the known and "leap to faith" in what is unknown.

Jesus himself introduced a new code of conduct that turned the Judaism of his time on its head. The strong were regarded as weak, prostitutes and tax collectors became first in line for salvation, an "eye for an eye" became "turn the other cheek." He was shifting the criteria for what constituted holiness. Fidelity to the law as it was "historically defined" (to use Taylor's words) was no longer enough. Faith became the new ticket for salvation.

But Jesus did not abandon the law. Indeed he said "not one letter of the Law will be changed." Because the law still stood to guide people in the ways of holiness. Killing displeased God. Stealing displeased God. These instructed people what to avoid in order to please God. Jesus added his own amendment to the First Commandment: "you shall love your neighbor as yourself." Loving neighbor, along with fully loving God, encompassed all the other commandments that were "historically defined" in Judaism.

One could imagine seeing Abraham on the brink of murdering his son and thinking "this is not good! This is not pleasing to God!" One may try to intercede, out of a feeling of faithful duty, to prevent such a sinful act from transpiring. One may even feel a sense of pride in keeping him from meriting eternal damnation.

But who is carrying out the will of God in this case? The Commandment seems clear enough ("Thou shalt not kill"). To the human eye it seems clear but as it is written, "not all things that seem right to man are right." God can make rules, but He has just as much right to break them. "Can I not do with my money what I will?"

Abraham received direct instructions from God; there was no mediator involved. It is in this realm that mystics tread, and it is not without its own unique challenges, as will be discussed in subsequent chapters. It can also be a very disorienting and lonely place.

For the mentally ill, the mind can be a kind of prison, or for some, a chamber of torture. Reality and delusion bleed together and distinction between the two is not always straightforward.


Saturday, October 4, 2008

Chapter 1: A Great Darkness

Since the dawn of time, human beings have lived by the sun. Ancient cultures often worshiped it as a deity because they realized they were totally dependent on it: without light there would be no vegetation and no warmth and, thus, no life. Everything revolved around the sun, both figuratively and literally. The passage of time was marked by its rising and setting. The day the sun failed to rise was generally considered to be the mark of the end of time.

Light imagery was adopted by philosophers, ethicists, moralists, and theologians to describe the phenomena of death, sin, and ignorance. Saint Augustine wrestled with the problem of evil, and drawing on his background in neo-platonism, concluded that evil had no existence of its own; it is merely the absence of good, just as darkness is the absence of light. Philosophically, darkness represented a kind of intellectual deficiency. One who was "left in the dark" was one who was ignorant of what was going on. Darkness in this way represented a kind of shroud that presented the person from seeing reality in its fullness.

Saint Paul uses light imagry to paint a picture of the moral life in his letter to the Ephesians:

"For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light, for light produces every kind of goodness and righteousness and truth. Try to learn what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the fruitless works of darkness; rather expose them, for it is shameful even to mention the things done by them in secret; but everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for everything that becomes visible is light." (5:8-14)

In the face of such suggestive language, it is tempting to want to equate light with "good" and darkness with "evil." But are such statements accurate? I would argue their value depends on one's presuppositions. Zen Buddhism has a strong tradition of debunking such reductive dualism. Value statements such as "good" and "not good" are intepretations of reality from the narrow perspective of the ego. Zen seeks to move beyond such a limited viewpoint into a realm where Reality is seen for what it is. In such an egoless realm, values like "good" and "evil" fall away because there is no subjective "I" to support them.

Mental illness in the West has depended on value judgments for self-definition, with the litmus being "normalcy." In such a paradigm, what is normal (that is, what is defined to be "normal") is assigned a value--i.e., normal is "good" or "desirable." Western psychiatry has both formally and informally set the parameters for what is and what is not "desirable" behavior. The Bible of psychiatry--The Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders--is the most concrete example of this. Behaviors which fall outside the parameters for normalcy are considered "disordered."

It is interesting that in Christian theology sin is also defined as a "disorder." It rests on the presupposition that there is a definitive order to Nature, an order prescribed by God, and that transgressions against such an order violate such a law; i.e., the Law of Nature or Eternal Law. St. Augustine defined sin as "something said, done, or desired contrary to the eternal law" (Reply to Faustus, XXII.27) The Cathechism of the Catholic Church draws on Thomas Aquinas as well and expands this definition to consider sin as "an offense against God and against reason" (1849-50).

It is difficult in a post-modern age to accept the idea of a definitive, objective order. Postmodernism (or more accurately, Poststructuralism) is more comfortable with the ambiguities that accompany a decentralization (or destabilization) of authority. A silly example might be employing the perspective of vampires as a method of destabilizing the commonly-held assumption that "light = good." Vampires would not consider light to be a good thing, and so the prescribed order that denotes "light = good" can no longer be considered universally applicable. Feminism might be another example: the assumption that all people are male is debunked, and the rulebook is rewritten so as to expand the parameters of the prescribed "order."

So if sin is a kind of disorder, and mental illnesses are designated in the DSM as "disorders," it is hard not to come to the conclusion that mental illness must be some kind of sin.

This is the conclusion affirmed by D. Tyler et al. in their book "When Sin is Called Sickness." They maintain that psychiatric disorders (depression, anorexia, etc.) are not diseases or sicknesses at all, but the manifestations of human sinfullness:

"The diagnosis is deceptive because it is not a real disease as disease is historically defined. There is no alteration in the anatomy (structure) or physiology (function) of the human body. Rather, the problem lies in feelings (depression, anxiety, guilt) and behavior (rebellion, anger, selfishness, immorality)."

I see where they are coming from, but I think this is very simplistic reasoning. It also feels very antiquated, like when people thousands of years ago thought they were blind or lame because they had sinned against God. To make such assertions today--that one is blind because of their personal sinfulness--is not only offensive but dangerous.



Letter to Fr. James Orthmann, O.S.C.O.

Fr. James Orthmann, O.S.C.O.
Holy Cross Abbey
901 Cool Springs Ln.
Berryville, VA

4 October

Fr. James,

Hello. I just wanted to shoot you off a quick letter. I don't remember where we last left off, but I have moved out of my apartment and (almost) into my converted school bus-hermitage. Construction has actually taken longer than I anticipated and when move out day came things were not yet done, so I have been staying with my parents for a few days. After that I will be staying with a friend for a couple weeks while I try to finish the bus. I have a friend who has a lot I can park in in the city, but he is away until the 18th, at which point it should be semi-livable. I think what I may do is treat it more as a retreat hermitage, spending three days a week there, and the remaining four days at a friend's house. Really, having constructed it in the first place was my main goal, and I consider that to have been accomplished for the most part.

This is a major change in my life, and it has been stressful, and with stress comes depression (for me at least). The day I moved out (Oct. 1) marked a kind of self-imposed metanoia, a time for me to shape up and get on with it--that is, starting on the path to holiness. I have given up those things that stand in the way of that: smoking, drinking, drugs, sexual impropriety. I have given away most of my possessions, and have sold the rest, as was commanded for one seeking perfection: "Go, sell what you have and give it to the poor..." This was a pragmatic as well as theological decision: my bus can only hold so much of my shit.

With the purge comes through the withdrawal. It is inevitable but, of course, not pleasant. What sustains me is the anticipation of those things that are in store for those who love God. And how is love expressed? Through obedience, as was written: "if you love me, keep my commandments." And with regard to true life: "if you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments." I feel I am on the right track and in need of much grace to keep on it, tenuous as it is since salvation is "impossible for man, but with God all things are possible."

Really, this period is only a precursor to what I hope will be a permanent commitment to the ways of holiness, leaving behind the lukewarm fickleness so deserving of condemnation. I am committed to the area until May, when I am slated to graduate with my Masters in Theology. Many of my friends are getting married, some having children, committing themselves to this or that. It forces me to consider my own prospects for commitment, and more and more I am feeling that married life is not for me; it is not enough. My desire is too great to be contained in a package that size.

I have spoken with my spiritual director about pursuing an eremetic life, but I think I am more dependent on social interaction than I would like to admit. Community life has always been hard for me, but it makes me think I have not found the right community to commit myself to. But when considering my options (if I am serious about monasticism as a way of life) the Benedictine community of Christ in the Desert seem to stand out.

From my first introduction I have been drawn to the Benedictines. The community at M.C.D. is also young and diverse, with monks from Mexico, Vietnam, and elsewhere. The setting itself is condusive to contemplation. I liked the time I had spent there. At a time when many communities are finding they are not able to sustain themselves, this monastery seems to have a future, and, I hope, a potential future for me. And the possibilities for eremeticism is there as well (I know they have at least one resident hermit), should that be where God leads me.

The next eight months of quasi-monasticism will be a good litmus test, I think. Really I am just trying to find what will make me the most happy. I have no misconceptions or rosy ideas of monastic life. I realize that it can be mundane, ordinary, a source of friction...just like a marriage. I wonder how my independent and strong-willed streak will fare in community; I imagine it will be the subject of many penitential prayers.

I am comforted by the fact that when it comes down to it, married life and monastic life are not too dissimilar. One thing I do know is that I do not want to spend my life living for myself, or end up like one of those despicable monks St. Benedict talks about who make their own desires a law unto itself. There is no happiness there.

I wanted to write to see if you had anything to say about my plans and desires. Of course you know this is not new for me. It amazes me to think that for ten years this nagging thought, this perpetual desire and restlessness, has not left me. It is my suspicion that it never will unless it is addressed. I am excited and nervous about the prospect. Of course nothing will be happening until the spring. But it's at that time I hope I will be able to give a full 'yes': to God, to community, and to the monastic way of life. Write soon.


Rob Marco

Friday, October 3, 2008

Checked Baggage

A rich man asks Jesus what he must do to gain eternal life. "Sell all that you have and distribute it to the poor, and you will have a treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me." (Lk 18:22) Mark's version comes across as a little more forgiving, leaving out the "all" and "it" (that is, all that was sold): "Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me."

After hearing this story Saint Antony (and countless others) took it to heart and gave away their savings and possessions. I have tried to do the same and realize that I have a long way to go. When I saw all my things piled up in the bus, I was filled with anxiety over the prospect of having to give away what I saw as indispensables. But I am doing a little bit at a time: my DSL and Netflix, donating my bed, sheets, most of my clothes, shoes, and books, eating simpler fare, shedding electricity, etc. Certain things--my tools, bike, computer--are staying put.

Being in my parents' house reminds me of the burdensome feeling that comes with owning a lot. My dad would like to live with less; my mom has no interest in doing so. She likes to buy things because she likes having things. When you are in a marriage you have to compromise and so my dad compromises his desire to simplify because of my mom's flair for 'things.'

But my parents are good people. In Mark's version of the story of the rich man, the author feels it important not to leave out the fact that despite his unwillingness to abandon his wealth, Jesus loved the man: "Jesus, looking at him, loved him (10:21).To what degree we own wealth has no bearing on the degree to which God loves us.

This idea of giving away all that you have can be taken to extremes, for instance, by arguing that having a cloak (as Jesus had) is a luxury in and of itself. It can also be rationalized as an adage not to be taken literally. I think both miss the mark. When talking about wealth and possessions, I prefer something along the lines of: "Everything you need, and nothing you don't."

Trimming the fat (so to speak) can be done in a dramatic, sudden metanoia, as with St. Antony, or it can be done in installments, as I am trying to do. It involves questions like: Why do I have three plates when I only need one? Why do I have ten shirts when I only wear two? I still have not come to terms with giving away my savings, since we need money to live in today's society, but maybe some time in the future the time will come for that.

When I was young I tried to only own as much as I could fit in a rucksack, so as to be ready when the Apocolypse came. Anticipation of this event is actually at the heart of this move towards greater poverty: shedding what one has in this life does not make sense except in the light of eschatology.

I think Jesus' imagry of a camel trying to fit through the eye of a needle is akin to the zen parable of The Empty Cup:

A university professor went to visit a famous Zen master. While the master quietly served tea, the professor talked about Zen. The master poured the visitor's cup to the brim, and then kept pouring. The professor watched the overflowing cup until he could no longer restrain himself. "It's overfull! No more will go in!" the professor blurted. "You are like this cup," the master replied, "How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?"

How can a camel fit through the eye of a needle? It can't! Only something small and insignificant like a fruitfly or gnat can fit through such a space. Camels are known to carry heavy burdens; they are typically encumbered animals. When Jesus said that one must become like a little child to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, he was speaking about this diminutive principal: you cannot become big and strong until you have made yourself small and meek. The cup must be emptied before it can be filled.

Possessions and wealth must be checked at the door before the Kingdom can be actualized in this life--eschatology becomes praxis. I've even found a good way to judge my attachment to things: the degree to which I feel pain in abandoning them. In my case, I am in for a lot of pain...

Thursday, October 2, 2008

It Is (not) Finished.

The move was very difficult, more mentally than physically. I could not have known until I moved everything into the bus, but only about half of it all fits. The rest is piled up on the bed and in the walkway and it is virtually impossible to move around. I was forced to throw everything in in a hurry because I slept in on my move-out date, but even with careful packing it would not all fit. It actually astounds me because I do not have that much. I am going to have to go through things again and be ruthless. I will be getting rid of the refrigerator/freezer to make room for storage and replace it with a small countertop 12v model.

Being out on the street is also not very much fun, not that I expected it to be. Not all the windows are blacked out yet so I can't sleep in it or go to the bathroom with any kind of privacy. The sink is not installed, there is no room for the urinal, the rainwater catchment is not working. In short I am not ready to move into it yet, so I will be staying with a friend until I am.

My biggest goal in this project was to give a concrete example of a sustainable living solution. My thoughts were more on the building, not the actual living, and it is a hard slap of reality moving from one phase to another. Theory vs. praxis. I consider myself to have accomplished what I set out to accomplish; the living is secondary. In all honesty at this point I don't know how it is going to work out; the movitavtion to live in the bus has waned. A friend who has a locked lot in Fairmount has been generous in giving me access to park, but I can't move in for a couple weeks, so until then I can try to finish things up to get it in shape enough for habitation.

I would feel much better if I had a removed place to park so I could feel like I could sit outside without having to worry about nosy neighbors or cops. If anything I have come to better understand the plight of the poor, the transitory, refugees, victims of war, and the homeless. In my present situation I am no better than a homeless person living in a car. Having no security and nowhere permanent to lay your really is a kind of dreadful feeling. Please say some prayers that things work out in a way that gives glory to God. In all honesty, I am struggling.