Monday, February 27, 2006

Seediness or Seeds of Spirituality?

It is not yet dinner time, yet my return to the monastery finds that many of the brothers rather suspect of my desert trek, in fact I heard one rumor that works to tie my absence to Bro. Simon's rather, as some are addressing it, seedy adventure. I should explain, upon return to the monastery at near the same time as Bro. Simon returned, it was Bro. Juniper who discovered nacho cheese on Bro. Simon's hood, and upon investigation, on the bottom of his left sandal was a glob of chewing gum whereupon was stuck a ticket stub of a movie house that features "classics" as they call them, and this ticket had "Andreiv Rublev" stamped upon it. With this ticket stub in hand, Bro. Juniper, in a bit of pettiness, immediately brought Bro. Sedwick into this tempest in a teapot. With my fondness for Russian films, Bro. Sedwick naturally suspected that I had, instead of fasting in the desert, lured Bro. Simon into eating popcorn and nachos at the movie house. So I'm afraid Abbot Eastley will be called to pass judgment, and here I remain silent in my cubicle. I should mention that it is very uncharacteristic of Bro. Simon to venture out on his own, especially for mere entertainment, so I do hope he is presently composing a rather grace saving critique of this most enchanting of films, a personal favorite of mine, from the opening Icarus-like flight in a patchy air balloon soaring above the vast medieval Russian landscape to Boriska's final revelation. But the question remains, can Bro. Simon, in his youth and his somewhat whimsical temperment, can he convince the dear abbot that his trek too was a worthy life venture. I tend to think so.

We await,
Bro. Bartleby

P.S. One troubling question remains, can one seek a spiritual experience while dipping nachos into melted cheese?

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Break Fast at the Monastery

My circuitous desert walk has brought me full circle, so before continuing my trek, I decide to pause for a hot meal. And arriving in the dining room, I could hear that the brothers have much on their plates this morning at break fast, for Bro. Juniper raised a point for our consideration. He referred to a comment I had made about bees providing us with honey, and Bro. Juniper offered, is that not theft? What in return do we give the honey bee? Then Bro. Cedric poked his fork into a plump sausage and raised it in the air and offered, "And what does this dear pig get in return for my dining delight?" Of course this caused a stir among the brothers, soon others questioned our 'theft' of eggs from our hens, and then Bro. Sedwick hushed us all when he raised a single biscuit above his head and asked, "Is the death of a wheat plant any less significant than the death of a muddy, stinky hog? At least the wheat plant stands tall with dignity, and with its brother and sister wheat plants provides a feast for our eyes, a beautiful sight indeed! Yet with razor-sharp scythes we mow down whole fields of these 'gentle' and dignified creations!" With that statement, the dining table fell silent. One brother who was about to bite into a biscuit, removed it from his waiting mouth and placed it back onto his plate. Soon many of the brothers pushed their still-full plates away, and then removed themselves from the dining room. I fear what will take place this evening at dinner time. Perhaps I should remain here a bit longer before continuing my arid trek? Felix seems to find the monastery agreeable.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Desert Journal - Entry 4

Brothers of the monastery,

Ah, I recall how Bro. Justin Martyr rhapsodized the 19th Psalm, a mere hundred years after the birth of our Savior -- listen:

"Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night showeth knowledge. There is no speech nor language where their voice is not heard. Their voice has gone out into all the earth, and their words to the ends of the world. In the sun hath He set His tabernacle, and he as a bridegroom going out of his chamber shall rejoice as a giant to run his course."

And night after night I lay on my back, warm sand to my back, God's magnificent creation above, I must tell you that I find myself so mesmerized that I hardly find time to sleep -- you laugh! all of you dear brothers, yes, picture me, who so often you find in his favorite hammock, yes, you find it hard to believe that I hardly find time to sleep -- but it is true! Last night I lay, the warm sand easing the aches in my weary bones, when to my side I heard a rustle -- a snake?! -- but before I could leap to my feet, an inquisitive "lizard" scrambled onto my robe and with sure dexterity he arrived atop my heaving chest, and there he remained for the remainder of his visitation. And together we returned to the "knowledge" of God. Heaven! No left, no right ... only infinity! And I counted ... one, two, three, four ... two-hundred and thirty seven, two-hundred and thirty eight ... one thousand and four, one thousand and five ... zzzzzzzzzz

Bro. Bartleby
(and little Felix, the lizard, both counting stars)

Monday, February 20, 2006

Desert Journal - Entry 3

Number 21:4-10
And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived."

Brothers of the monastery,

Snakes, stars, and sand. Each have a story to tell and I dare say they have finally found a listener, for in my circuitous trek I have again and again been instructed by my seemingly ever-present companions to slow down and take note of them. And I have. Especially snakes! But I must say that I followed Moses example and with pole (constructed from the Ocotillo) I attached to the top a fair representation of a snake -- certainly not bronze -- but I found the tattered remains of a tire inner tube and if I don't say so myself, tied to the top of the pole, it has a certain resemblance to the Black Mamba. So with Ocotillo pole in hand, I have parted the desert sands of feisty snakes, poisonous or nonpoisonous -- I know not -- for to me all snakes look alike, slithering serpents that catch only my fleeting glance as I spin in my tracks and make haste in the opposite direction -- these creatures will certainly receive no "... by crickey! ain't 'e a beaut!" from me.

And I must admit early on that I was much like the Israelites setting out from Mount Hor, complaining about everything: "There is nothing to eat here and nothing to drink. And we hate this wretched manna!" But now I grumble no more. For even if my beef jerky supply is getting low, I'm no longer fretting, for fretting undermines faith. And it is faith that God requires of us. So, as a not so gentle reminder for those times when our faith sags, God created snakes. Yes, I now believe -- by crickey! -- that God created snakes in order for us to appreciate what we have. For when my faith dwindles and my lamentings increase, that is when the snakes begin to appear.

Brother Bartleby

A Mirage or an Oasis?

"Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland."

Isaiah 43:18-19

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Desert Journal - Entry 2

Brothers of the monastery,

Revelation of sheer silence

1 Kings 19:11-12

"He said, 'Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.' Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind, and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence."

Yes dear brothers, how often have we dwelled on the mundane, fretting over lamp oil -- thoughts of dry oil lamps, thoughts of dark cubicles without a ray of light to illuminate our precious tomes -- oh, the travails of the temporal world! And look! Already I've traveled these desert climes, without so much as an ounce of our precious lamp oil. Oh, I lament, for we too often create our own tiny worlds, trifling worlds that soon fill to excess, so much so that we are blinded to God's world. Open your eyes dear brothers, step back, vacate yourselves from your cubicles, trek into the world as God created it, shed yourselves of your lifetime of accumulations, listen to Jesus as he tries so hard to open our eyes: "... consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these." Oh my dear brothers, the machinations of the present age are futile, all our attempts to create a better world are but illusions, because all the attempts "are ours"!

I must close now, for the desert winds do howl, and this telephone booth does make a poor abode, but thanks to Bro. Simon for loaning me his laptop, for the technology does permit us to be together in thoughts, yet we must remember that the technology is but a temporal convenience, a convenience that is but like the wind, it roars and shakes mankind, but God is not there -- God abides in His creations, not ours.

Brother Bartleby

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Desert Journal - Entry 1

Brothers of the monastery,

Revelation of the Ocotillo

When Zophar the Naamathite asked Job: "Can you find out the deep things of God? Can you find out the limit of the Almighty?" What Zophar didn't understand was that Job could find nothing in and my himself -- God found and chose Job and through Job the deeper things of God were revealed. Thus, today the Ocotillo found me!

Yes brothers, I broke the monastery's first rule: travel not alone in darkness in the land of scorpions and serpents. And it was in my desert wanderings that the darkness set and I broke the rule and continued my march. But not long did I march, for with the heavenly milky way above as my only guide and a full moon as my illumination, a mighty ocotillo halted my march. And as we all know dear brothers, in all truth, it is God's nature to be self-revealing -- in the moonlight I wrestled with the spiny arms of the mighty ocotillo, but those arms held me tight until the first dawn of mornings light -- then with many scratches and a tatter of a robe, I was released.

And what is this mighty ocotillo? For you brothers who have not ventured into the desert climes, the ocotillo as it first appears looks to be a bare and dead shrub, very tall indeed, and devoid of life or leaf. Many lengthy spiny woody spears shoot from the sandy earth -- ten, fifteen feet high -- and covering each of these woody spears are cacti-like thorns, each enough to make one a believer -- and last night I indeed became a believer.

But the mighty ocotillo is much more than this. For when the spring rains come to the desert, the dry and barren ocotillo suddenly comes alive, for covering each and every spear are clusters of tiny green leaves. And in the desert breeze these tiny leaves shimmer like spangles on the dress of some ancient Babylonian queen. Not only shimmer, but they bring life and sustenance back to the emaciated body that has endured for months in the searing desert heat. And soon again the tiny leaves will drop and fall, and a searing wind will scatter them to the four corners of this arid landscape, but their deeds will have been done, for with renewed vigor and strength the mighty ocotillo will once again be able to withstand the onslaught of the cyclical inferno.

So dear brothers, remember, God reaches out to us in the most unexpected of ways (and I do advise wearing a pith helmet at all times!). And by its very nature, revelation is by divine initiative; God is revealed to us because God has chosen to make it so. All of our efforts to quest revelation are futile, for God is the mighty ocotillo that looms unnoticed in the barren land, unnoticed that is until one runs smack into Him in the dead of the night. (And I pray God will forgive me for the squall of oaths that broke His most tranquil of nights.)

Brother Bartleby

Time to Set Sail!

If the highest aim of a captain were to preserve his ship, he would keep it in port forever.

--Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274)

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Infinity and the Brick Wall

Reading and discussing philosophy has always stirred my imagination, yet the 'ultimate question' has nagged me since I was 11 years old, for I recall it very vividly. In 6th grade we had this huge playground, at the far end was a rather large shade tree, and one afternoon after running about during recess, I found myself with a buddy under the shade of that tree, cooling off. Soon we both flopped to the ground, on our backs, hands clasped behind our heads, both of us looking up through the leafy tree branches to the blue sky. And this is what I recall most, saying outloud to myself, "How high is the sky?" Then my friend saying something like the sky goes up forever, and I added that the sky and outer space just had to go on forever. I don't recall if 'infinity' was in my 6th-grade vocabulary at the time, but that was my firm belief, for, and this I recall saying, "If outer space had an end, then what would it be? A brick wall? Then something would have to be on the other side of the brick wall." Okay,

I'm no longer in the 6th grade, and know that space and time and this material world are a tiny bit of IT ALL. Even 'quantity' are things of this world, so to even say IT ALL can only be a notion of a being of this material world. Of course I believe in a God, a Creator of all that we humans can sense, and within this belief I can stir my imagination with all the insights that science has uncovered. Yet when I talk to, or read the thoughts of someone who does not hold a belief in a God, or Creator, or Higher Power, then the discussion is limited to 'this world' as something that came about, and all we can really do is investigate the material world, for after all we have no instruments to sense the immaterial, so the atheist either ignores the immaterial world (all that humans cannot sense with either our senses, or instruments) or allow reasoning to become an instrument of investigation. I guess that is what I was using while wondering under that shade tree, an 11-year-old brain reasoning that infinity had to exist, yet reasoning couldn't fully grasp it.

For a moment I'll attempt to use reason as if I were an atheist. For the most part we are simply another accumulation of atoms that came together by chance and evolution and have a very brief existence before dissolving and disassembling into the original atoms that constructed us, and that is it. Birth, life, death. Period. No rhyme or reason. This presents two great concerns for us, life is ultimately meaningless, and the complex electro-chemical reactions within our skull are simply that, and no more. This Godless brain is no more special than the computer you are using, pull the plug, it is dead -- blank. To really believe this and confront it as a reality is more than many folks can take, for it can very easily lead to 'madness' or any of many mental 'disorders.' Some intellectual atheists busy themselves with mental activities that for the most part keep them from confronting the void. But in the end, all the activities are just hammering more 2X4s to that door from which behind is the ultimate reality -- nothingness.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Righting a Wrong

Before our dear abbot founded the monastery, he, a disillusioned philosophy professor from Yale, in the late ‘60s, drove his VW microbus into the desert of the American southwest, and came upon a Sherwood Covington, who over the years, in fact his whole adult life, attempted to build the perfect desert dwelling, using all natural materials, yet he, uneducated in really anything except perhaps, auto repair using but a hammer and pliers, spend years gathering timber from the distant Sierra Nevada, planed said timber and created a rather unique notching system for nail-less construction, that and a method of mixing native adobe with strands of wasted cacti and forming rather hardy bricks, whereupon he used this to foundation his ‘perfect’ desert dwelling, but even these very creative building blocks could not negate the fact that Sherwood did not understand certain fundamentals, such as gravity. When our future abbot arrive, as John Eastley then called, he marveled, in the beginning, at Sherwood's creation, but over the months he realized that Sherwood wasn’t building the perfect desert dwelling, but was frantically attempting to keep what he had built years before from toppling, and what amazed the bearded, and I suppose you could say, hippie, John, was that Sherwood wasn’t even aware that he was spending his entire life propping up a mis-designed structure. Sherwood soon died, and John never revealed to Sherwood that his life’s work was all in error. But the end-life friendship resulted in John receiving the title to Sherwood’s property, and after much thought and I should add, anguish, John disassembled Sherwood’s efforts, and then after drafting a well thought out design, used Sherwood’s hand-crafted building blocks to construct what is today the monastery chapel, a beautiful structure, that the now abbot always reminds us, was constructed from the timber and building blocks lovingly crafted by a Sherwood Covington ... Sherwood's life's work.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Right and Wrong and Who Cares?

I would say that nature is amoral, and if you consider humans as just a different or more evolved animal, then humans too are amoral, as are all living things.

Questions of right and wrong are fictions to amoral life, for only survival and comfort matters. And comfort can take various forms, for say a rabbit, being free from the eyes of a predator may be enough, for a tiger, comfort may be the excitement of sinking teeth into the neck of an antelope and tasting hot blood and anticipating the coming meal, or comfort for an amoral human may be health, wealth, good sex, and all the security and distractions that money can buy.

Morals don’t come into play unless one believes in a higher power -- God. Without a belief in God, then morals are simply learned experience for keeping folks under control, and thereby keeping the comfort levels high for the greatest number of folks.

Morals kick into play when one believes in God, and then rights and wrongs have real meaning. Even if we must kill animals to survive, and it must be done day in and day out, this doesn’t lessen the importance in remembering what is actually taking place.

So to care about what one eats is to care about the pigs or the cows or the chickens or the corn plants or the stalks of wheat that were sacrificed for us to survive.

The prayer before a meal, at its center, is an acknowledgment to God that we understand that the plant or animal that we are about to consume was sacrificed on our behalf. I suppose it is all about living in the moment, especially when a feast is before us and the anticipation of what is to come—the T-bone steak or the spicy taco with salsa or the barrel of chicken wings—so the prayer prior to the feast keeps us moment-centered and may even transform the simple meal to the sacred.

Contemplation of Invisible Things

"If there are any now who think that the mind itself and the soul is a body, I wish they would tell me by way of answer how it receives reasons and assertions on subjects of such importance, of such difficulty and such subtlety? Whence does it derive the power of memory? and whence comes the contemplation of invisible things? How does the body possess the faculty of understanding incorporeal existences? How does a bodily nature investigate the processes of the various arts, and contemplate the reasons of things? How, also, is it able to perceive and understand divine truths, which are manifestly incorporeal?"

Origen of Alexandria (185-254 AD)

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Mixing it up

Today over at Crooked Timber we mixed it up a bit with the ongoing discussion of what the Danish cartoon crises is all about. I see this as a continuation of the issues raised in the Torah, simply stated, a clash of cultures or societies: honor-based society vs morality-based society.

Over two thousand years ago the Hebrew Bible settled (for Jews and later Christians) the ‘problems’ of subjective notions of honor and face with objective rights and wrongs. In other words, the Hebrew Bible is full of stories of imperfect individuals who do foolish things and in the end must ‘fess up to their foolishness (become dishonored). But in honor-based societies, one who is dishonored can restore his honor (and face) by seeking revenge on those who wronged him.

It is odd to say that ‘blaming others’ and ‘honor’ are somehow equated with each other. But in these honor-based societies, ‘honor’ takes on new meaning. A good example is ‘honor killing’, the UN statistics puts the figure at 5,000 ‘honor’ killing each year (those that are reported). If a female member of the family ‘shames’ the family, then it is up to the males to preserve the honor of the family, by doing what? Killing. In a morality-based society, one may ‘feel like killing’ a daughter or sister for having a sexual affair with some ‘outsider,’ but ‘morality trumps honor’ and ‘killing’ is not an option. It is against your law, and against your morals.

Up until lately, Western civilization has been rooted in Judeo-Christian values, which are rooted in the Jewish belief that God is just, so too we are expected to live justly. Jesus raised the standards even higher, to the ‘impossible’ standards of loving our enemies. It becomes a daily struggle, we wrestle with what we hold to be truth. Even when we fail to live up to these 'impossible' standards, we still believe God holds us to them.

Bro. Bartleby

The Real End Time Game

Francis of Assisi could have chosen the ‘end time watch’ route (like many televangelist do), after all, the Crusades were in full swing and at one point he visited the Holy Land and witnessed what was taking place, and said, so to speak to the Crusaders, “Hey guys, this isn’t what we are all about.” As many know, Francis preached to all creatures, even the famous Sermon to the Birds, and with a vow of poverty, modeled himself after the apostles of Jesus in his preaching the Good News. So, for Francis, he lived in the present, and his followers, later to become know as the Franciscans, also lived in the present and followed the example of Jesus. It would have been very easy (and logical?) for Francis to look around, see all the chaos in the Holy Land, and then begin playing the end-time game. And by the way, in 1219, when Francis joined the crusaders, instead of fighting, he ended up preaching to the Sultan of Egypt -- Francis of Assisi, never one to pass up an opportunity.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Superbowl at the monastery

Bro. Simon has a jury-rigged Zenith B&W TV that he has hid in the belfry for such occasions as these, and I am the master rabbit-ear adjuster this evening (having to actually hold the rabbit-ears in order to gain a reasonable reception, and it keeps me from actually viewing the game, so I have borrowed Bro. Juniper's iPod and while holding said ears, am listening to some rather festive Gregorian chants, which is somewhat discerning as my vision is filled with some very excitable brothers pumping their arms up and down). Of course I must keep my focus on my duties so that I do not become victim of much incivility from the brothers, who are crowded in the belfry, some sporting Steeler jerseys atop their robes ... a few with Boston U jerseys, of course these brothers are unaware of what is actually taking place, but nevertheless, we allow their misguided cheers.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Saying Grace

Some care about what they eat.
Now read that again, slower.
Some care about what they eat.
No, not what's on your plate.
Some care about the pigs or the cows or the chickens or the corn plants or the stalks of wheat that were sacrificed.
Some care about what they eat. The prayer before a meal, at its center, is an acknowledgment to God that we understand that the plant or animal that we are about to consume was sacrificed on our behalf. I suppose it is all about living in the moment, especially when a feast is before us and the anticipation of what is to come -- the mastication of the T-bone steak or the spicy taco with salsa or the barrel of chicken 'wings' -- so the prayer prior to the feast keeps us moment-centered and may even transform the simple meal to the sacred.

Sacredness of the moment

Yes, every moment is sacred, the gift of life is oh so overwhelming that in these moment-by-moments, one is moved to tears by what God has made us a part of. The other day I was wandering about in the desert landscape of Joshua Tree Nat'l Park, and oh what a misnomer -- desert. I want to call it 'fullness' for what this clime does to the soul. And Jimmy Joyce, what fun! And Francis of Assisi, can you imagine being among the birds as he preached to them the Good News! And can you further imagine Francis wandering the Dublin of James Joyce, perhaps around a corner stepping before Stephen Dedalus, nodding with a smile as they cross paths, both living the moment, both very much aware of the sacredness of that moment. Yes, the mere nod and smile would suffice.
Bro. Bartleby


"What we are looking for is what is looking."

--Francis of Assisi (1181-1226)

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Abbot Eastley's Homily on Comfort

First and foremost, all things in nature seek balance and equilibrium. In the human realm, we think of this as comfort. Think about it, strip away all pretenses and what you end up with is simply wanting comfort. And once you have it? Then everything else is extra. But take away any one essential comfort (good health, a roof over your head, food on the table, a safe living environment), then everything turns to naught.

Modernity is societies way of seeking comfort. Think of the hunter-gatherers, they discover a tribe living in some huts and growing some crops, and they marvel at the comforts that the farmers have created. And then the farmers, they go to market to sell their goods and find comforts in the village that don't exist on the farm. Some abandon the farm and seek jobs in the village where life offers comfort. And then the villager goes to visit the city and is lured by the comforts there, and so it goes, modernity and seeking comfort go hand in hand.

So you see, seeking comfort is the driving force of modernity -- and modernity does create physical comforts. Creating physical comforts is what capitalism is all about. The failure of socialism (and all the other isms) is the failure to create enough comforts to offset the lure of what capitalism can create.

But what is the real price of comfort? For those blinded by the want of ever more comforts, the price is indeed high -- for ever more comforts, they give their soul.


I do think the dear abbot is addressing individuals, as in you and me and whoever, we all seek comfort over discomfort. Even our bodies are hardwired with an alert system -- pain -- to guide us to comfort. Under the microscope you will see critters avoiding other critters that are trying to create discomfort -- eating them. Pets are excellent examples, all they want is a calm master with food readily at hand. A baby also, a wet diaper is discomfort, a dry diaper is comfort. A corporate tycoon may create discomfort for other folks, but of course so that he may enjoy more comfort/security. Francis of Assisi recognized this, that is why Franciscans live by a vow of poverty and will not accept money, for Francis accepted discomfort over comfort, for him it was the greater goodness, an attempt to follow Jesus as the apostles followed Jesus, with total faith.
Bro. Bartleby

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Dance of the Haploids

What is that "spark" that occurs when the male and female gametes fuse?

Life! Potentiality is born!

And if we must withhold from calling it life for "practical" purposes, then how honest are we? The female gamete by itself will forever be only an egg, the male gamete by itself will forever be only a sperm (although it may seemingly possess all "normal" male characteristics, a strong single-minded drive, competitive beyond belief, forever wriggling and wrangling to get the prize) -- but when fusion occurs, the female haploid chromosome set and the male haploid chromosome set fuse into a new diploid individual, and it is at this point that "potentiality" occurs -- the spark -- and egg and sperm are no more.