Posted by: cctracker | October 7, 2013

Louis C.K.’s Mystical Experience: “The Forever Empty”

I’ve been wary of Louis C.K. for years, keeping him at arm’s length in spite of sensing that he was among the cleverest, most cerebral comic voices of today. A few days ago, a friend sent me a link to a remarkable interview he did with Conan O’Brien.  I’m officially a fan, now.


Before I send you to that interview, a little context.

My first exposure to Louis C.K. was indirect: an offhand comment by my son. I can’t remember exactly what he said, but I heard conflicting messages. First: “This guy is brilliant and hilarious!”  But also–more subtly between the lines: “I’m not recommending him to you, Dad. Pretty dark and offensive.”

The few glimpses I had of his stuff after that confirmed both messages. I saw some very creative and original bits on the classic comedic theme of what is really going on inside the human mind as the world swirls around us, but I also heard a torrent of gratuitous f-bombs and obscenities woven into stories about the irredeemable darkness of the human situation. I kept my distance.

The trouble is I have a “Void-O-Meter” in my chest. It thrums a warning in the presence of anything drawing seductive energy from the moral anti-matter of ugliness, cynicism and nihilism to entertain an audience.


You know when you’re watching one of those movies about a meltdown in a nuclear reactor or the release of a toxic, alien virus in some sci-fi lab?


There’s that deep, resonant, repeated blaring of an alarm.  A horrible, gauzy red light flashing down a corridor. That’s how it feels.

I’ve found it to be especially sensitive to the presence of corrosive cultural material when kids are around.

I’m a huge fan of movies, but they’re the most frequent trigger.  My sons know about the void-o-meter without our ever having talked about it. They remember what it was like to be with me at the video store. I felt like Holden Caulfield on some ridiculously high plateau. My kids running through the rows of videos, pointing or reaching, oblivious to the danger all around them. The void, looming, reaching out, trying to get inside them. I was a madman.

“No Freddy Kruger under any circumstances!!” Heart of Summer

“How about the next “Pink Panther, instead?” 


I’m not going to pretend my void-o-meter measures objective truths about the quality of one cultural artifact vs another. It makes up its own mind, making me feel the soullessness of a movie before I’ve even taken a moment to think about the underlying values driving the characters or the story.

That’s how it was with American Pie. My students were talking about how funny it was. I suspected the worst, but rented it one night so that my critique would be honest. Though I railed against it for years, I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t watch it for more than a few minutes. It bothered me that much. When students asked if I’d seen it, I lied.

But here’s the thing: it barely even beeped for Animal House. I was a freshman in college. I laughed so hard it nearly made me sick. Years later when my own boys saw it in high school, I took great delight in replaying my favorite scenes.











I realize this is subtle, subjective territory, but it seems like all the void-o-meter needs to stay quiet in the presence of crude, ugly or dark content is an “inner cue” of some kind–a crucial bit of context in a plot, sometimes just a simple facial expression– to let the audience know that somewhere, underneath the events being depicted , a human soul still breathes.

It needs to hear the voice of one soul saying to another:  “I know this is potentially corrosive stuff, but I’m with you. We’re in this together. I’m not using you in asking you to look; this isn’t a private peep show  for your dark, solitary obsessions. I’m sharing this with you. So, it’s OK. Let’s laugh together.”

You know that moment when Belushi looks back at the camera up on the ladder? Hardly an edifying moral moment for an impressionable teenager, right? And yet, isn’t there something very generous, very human, about it?

When “The Simpsons” first aired there was quite a stir in ” youth formation” circles. What would selfish smart aleck Bart Simpson do to the souls of our children? They needn’t have worried; the show was full of affection for  its characters.  And despite all this dysfunction they loved each other! Besides, Marge was clearly the norm for the Satire and she was as good as gold.


Whereas even the most innocuous detail from an episode of “Family Guy” sets off the void-o-meter full tilt. family_guy

“Hatred” is not too strong a word for my reaction to that show. Everything is mocked. Everything exposed as ugly. Nothing authentically affirmed. No one really loved.

I could run through a long catalog of other examples from popular culture, comparing one voice to another trying to capture the line between spirit and void:

Why I think Richard Pryor, even at his crudest moments, rarely triggered the void-ometer…


…and how, after many years of delivering extraordinary, soul-affirming material, something went terribly wrong in the heart of George Carlin.


But this post is getting long and I haven’t gotten back to the Louis C.K. interview yet. Let me add one more bit of context before you take a look at it.

So far I’ve only spoken of “the void” in negative terms, as something menacing, something from which to protect small children. Something that threatens the child-like vulnerability and openness of every human soul.

I’ve expressed the visceral alarm I’ve felt when I sense that a person is being is manipulated–ultimately used–by those who cynically arouse their desires for sex, violence, revenge, superiority or security, so that they can temporarily satisfy those appetites in a commercial consumer transaction.

Louis C.K. works a very different angle.

Even before I’d seen the Conan clip, I should have caught that difference between C.K.’s message and the horrifying commercial soullessness of a film like American Pie or the relentless, empty obscenity of a comedian like Andrew Dice Clay in his younger days. (Who really redeems himself in his recent performance in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine) Voices like those are cashing in on fundamentally manipulative–and therefore deceptive– content.

Louis C.K. is making plenty of money, but his take home pay is the fruit of a clear intention to share the truth of how he sees the world with adults who have to be thinking pretty hard about the meaning of life to get the humor. Respect and authenticity are woven into the very fabric of his humor.

I once heard prayer described as a “long, loving look at the real.” The little I’d heard from Louis CK gave me the sense that his comedy had emerged from a “long, loving look at the void.”

“Emptiness,” however, is one of the classically honored doorways to an experience of God. And in Christianity our “poverty” before the forces that surge around us and through us–which is another way of saying our acceptance of them– is the inner secret to our strength.

I still didn’t trust him.

“Absolutely nothing is sacred,” I heard him saying between the lines. “And I’m going to make you laugh in recognition of that brutal truth.”

I had serious “theological” objections to that message. What hope was he offering in the midst of all the darkness? What was worthy of love and affirmation amidst all the ugliness and dishonesty? Why love even your children, much less the rest of humanity?

Now, about the video.

He begins by talking about why kids shouldn’t have cell phones. That leads him to describe what it means to be a “person.” Then he really gets going and the mystical insights come one after another:

Their is a great sadness to life.

It must nevertheless be faced, known and accepted.

What comes after is an even deeper happiness: gratitude for being alive enough to feel the sadness.

He doesn’t say the next part out loud, but his vocation is witness to it: that gratitude is the energy from which one draws the strength and hope to share one’s life with others.

His remarks are one of the best articulations of the perils and graces of the inner life I’ve ever heard. I find them profoundly spiritual, even implicitly Christian.

Take a look.

Embracing The Ability To Just Sit There « The Dish.

Louis C.K. is reminding us that having the courage and honesty to look squarely at the inescapable void, the emptiness and vast sadness built into our experience of the world, is a necessary step to living an authentic and creative life.

There is an essential kind of “letting go” that enables a person to embrace being, despite its vulnerability before nothingness,  in such a way as to allow gratitude–we could simply call it happiness–to well up within.  This is one way, perhaps, to capture what it means to “put on the mind of Christ.”


He may be using other words, but Louis C.K. is saying all of that in this interview. I hear faith in his words, even if he and I wouldn’t agree on whether they correspond to religious language.

To close this post, here is an extended passage from a recent reflection by Richard Rohr that captures Louis C.K.’s “spirituality” in more explicit terms:

“We fear nothingness. That’s why we fear death, of course, which feels like nothingness. Death is the shocking realization that everything I thought was me, everything I held onto so desperately, was finally nothing.

“The nothingness we fear so much is, in fact, the treasure and freedom that we long for, which is revealed in the joy and glory of the Risen Christ. We long for the space where there is nothing to prove and nothing to protect; where I am who I am, in the mind and heart of God, and that is more than enough.

“Spirituality teaches us how to get naked ahead of time, so God can make love to us as we really are.”


Posted by: cctracker | October 2, 2013

Scalfari Interview with Pope Francis: Too Much To Absorb

I have been working for several days on a post about the unprecedented extended interview Pope Francis did for America Magazine. I simply haven’t had time enough to absorb the material to know where to begin.

It made headlines all over the world, garnering praise not just from Stephen Colbert, who is a Catholic after all, but from John Stewart as well. Talk about the New Evangelism!

This Pope has continued to catch the commentators–and the faithful–off guard from the day he took his name and stood before us with arms at his side. It seems that before we can adjust to one remarkable gesture, story or homily, the next follows right on its heels.

Tonight, still trying to finish that post, I followed a link in the New York Times to an interview that has stunned me to a degree beyond even the America piece.

The Pope of the Roman Catholic Church calls one of Italy‘s most well-known journalists and atheists on the phone and asks for an appointment. They meet for a conversation that wouldn’t have been considered credible enough for a Hollywood screenplay.

The room around me disappeared as I read. I’m certain my pulse was racing. I read a few phrases aloud just to hear them in the air and taste them on my tongue. Take a moment to read them yourself.

If you love the Church and know it well, you may be frightened that he is telling too much truth, perhaps risking scandal. But below that fear, your heart make take joy, as mine did, to hear the essence of what the Church is named with such courage and faith.

If you have fallen away from love of the Church, or from faith in God altogether, you will hear the words of a man who does not stand in judgement, but inclines his heart and ear toward you, in order to listen.

The Pope: how the Church will change –


Posted by: cctracker | September 11, 2013

“Age of Denial” Also a Crisis of Faith

“My professors’ generation could respond to silliness like creationism with head-scratching bemusement. My students cannot afford that luxury. Instead they must become fierce champions of science in the marketplace of ideas.”              Adam Frank


When I began these reflections, I remember trying to articulate the territory I most wanted to explore . What I came to was the nexus of science, culture and religious faith.   This recent opinion piece by Adam Frank in the NYT is right in that wheelhouse.

Welcome to the Age of Denial –

His central point is right on the surface: despite 30 years of scientific progress and the urgency of issues from climate change to genetic engineering,  Americans don’t place enough trust in science .

He says the situation is getting worse and blames religion, at least in part.

But I think there is a deeper layer of meaning, a parallel crisis, he doesn’t address. I’d call it a crisis of faith.

Speaking of religion, it’s clear that Frank is, in his own way, preaching here. You can feel the religious fervor as his sermon comes to a close with a rhetorical flourish:

“Behind the giant particle accelerators and space observatories, science is a way of behaving in the world. It is, simply put, a tradition. And as we know from history’s darkest moments, even the most enlightened traditions can be broken and lost. Perhaps that is the most important lesson all lifelong students of science must learn now.”

From my cyber-pew, I confess to being a willing disciple. I agree that without what he calls  the “open-ended, evidence-based processes” of science, the fragile, 200,000 year experiment of Homo sapiens is doomed to failure.

Image at E.O. Wilson's Biodiversity Website

Image at E.O. Wilson’s Biodiversity Website

But while he attacks conservative politicians for exploiting vulnerable hearts and minds and mocks the silliness of Creationists, he doesn’t ask the deeper question that science, understood in its broadest sense, would seem to require: Why is Creationism hardening as a narrative today? Is the whole picture explained by the manipulation of religious and political propagandists?


Image at

He says his disciples must become  “fierce champions of science in the marketplace of ideas.”  I’m with him, but he’s preaching to the choir. If he wants to reach the rest of the congregation,  he’ll need to think more about why they are frequently confused, scared or angered by scientists and their message. He is, no doubt, a great physicist and astronomer. But to win a critical mass of “hearts and minds”  for science he’ll need to be a better theologian, or at least a better philosopher of religion. If he thinks this would be a waste of his time, he may be guilty of the same willful blindness he finds objectionable in Creationist climate-deniers.

What he doesn’t seem to grasp is that those of us who embrace science but also affirm the authenticity of a posture of faith, could take his quote,  and with just a few substitutions, make the parallel point:

“Behind the great cathedrals, creeds and rituals,  faith is a way of behaving in the world. It is, simply put, a tradition. And as we know from history’s darkest moments, even the most enlightened traditions can be broken and lost. Perhaps that is the most important lesson all lifelong students of spirituality and religion must learn now.”

Photo at

Photo at

I’m convinced that one of the underlying dynamics driving this “age of denial” in contemporary culture–a force at least as influential as an ideologically driven campaign of sabotage–is the influence of a profoundly destabilizing chapter in human history, a moment in our evolution as a species when mass scientific consciousness has risen enough to explicitly challenge mass spiritual/religious consciousness.

Image by Lou Beach at

Image by Lou Beach at

In terms of an explicit approach to “the meaning of life,” science and religion don’t mix easily. Their competing explanatory models are extremely difficult to reconcile on an intellectual level. Only a tiny cadre of educated elites down through the ages have confronted this problem until now, though the pace has picked up some since the Enlightenment.

Many of them abandoned spiritual  practice and religion in their hearts while maintaining the appearance of faith. Others, often people of great courage, made their rejection public.

But there have also been people of faith– Aquinas, Galileo,  Darwin, Jefferson– who confronted the conflict and, thanks to remarkable gifts and rarefied communities of formation, made their way through the thicket without fundamentally closing themselves off to either model.


Even for them, it was a harrowing journey. It certainly has been for me.

But today, it seems the whole mass of humanity is beginning to glimpse the apparent contradictions between faith and science.

Image at

And while denial is certainly one of the ways we’re coping, it seems crucial for today’s educated elites to understand the conflict between faith and science on more sophisticated terms. They need to better grasp the stakes in the conflict within the minds and imaginations of individual people and within and between cultures.


My neighbor is one of the people Adam Frank is afraid of.  She is a kind person, an intelligent business woman and a deeply committed Catholic. She is also a  climate denier who is convinced there is an atheist conspiracy aimed at relativizing our core values, especially the sacredness of human life. If pushed, I’m pretty sure she’d say she doesn’t believe in evolution.

The other day she invited me to a gathering of conservatives at a local pub. She has me pegged for a liberal, but invited me anyway since the purpose of the event is for conservatives to discuss how they can, quoting her website, ” win the hearts and minds” of the liberals who disagree with them.  I’d be target practice, I guess.

Looking through the promotional material for the gathering, I found very little concrete, reasoned argument about particular issues. Talking with her, I found she knew very little about the Affordable Health Care Act she vehemently opposes. Instead, she supports broad themes: fiscal responsibility, the nobility of our founding ideals and, especially, the inherent, God-given value and dignity of human life.

Image at

Image at

My neighbor doesn’t feel like science and scientific community are her allies in defending these values. She sees them a something much closer to the enemy. I completely disagree, but, given her values, I understand how this feels to her like a coherent position.

She hears a philosophy of materialism in science. Voices that mock faith. Scientists who proclaim that our soul/consciousness is “a pack of neurons,” and that the human being is just “another animal.” Or even worse that we’re a cancer on the biosphere. To her, the perspective of science is that nothing is sacred.

Perhaps she gets that idea from reading quotes like this one from Steven Hawking , the highest of High Priests in the rising culture of science as ultimate bearer of truth:


 “The human race is just a chemical scum on a moderate-sized planet, orbiting around a very average star in the outer suburb of one among a hundred billion galaxies.”

Though I see Hawking  and many other scientist/atheists in a much more favorable light, I nevertheless have sympathy for her perspective.

About 10 years ago, as a direct result of my investment in the scientific worldview, I collided head-on with a terrifying interior emptiness.  I hadn’t seen it coming. I came to call it “the void.”

Cardinal Fledge Photo James Burton

Cardinal Fledge
Photo James Burton

I had fantasies of becoming a scientist as a kid, but terrible failure and embarrassment in mathematics sent me into the unconditionally loving arms of the humanities in high school years and then into theology and spirituality as a young adult.

By my early 40’s though,  I’d slowly worked my way back to a passion for science. It began with watching birds.  Plants, trees, animals and the limestone layers of eastern Missouri soon followed. I began reading natural history, then biology and evolutionary theory, eventually physics. I found myself admiring the mastery and devotion of scientists like E.O. Wilson and Steven Weinberg.

Then, almost in a single moment, I not only realized they were atheists,  but I felt irresistible force in their arguments. They offered a devastating commentary on spiritual approaches to life’s meaning and purpose.  Narratives and images I’d been depending on interiorly all my life, most of which I had thought were grounded in defensible, reasonable ideas,  were crumbling.

Wilson captured the point I found so troubling this way in his book Conscilience:

“The essence of humanity’s spiritual dilemma is that we evolved genetically to accept one truth and discovered another. Is there a way to erase the dilemma, to resolve the contradictions between the transcendentalist and empiricist world views? No, unfortunately, there is not.” 

Soon, I was not only in the midst of the deepest doubts I’d ever had about God, but was doubting even the coherence and meaning of human subjectivity as an article of  faith. Was it meaningful to declare that I or anyone else was really “here?” Was the sacred category of “presence”–and therefore also “relationship”–just a useful fiction to keep us from terror or despair so that our genes could survive? As you might guess, I was often moody. I talked less at the dinner table.

While I can’t say there was a single moment when some light began to penetrate that deep, intellectual darkness, there was  a moment in the spring of 2003 in my folk’s backyard that nudged me into a new mode of inquiry about the conflict between faith and science.

I was standing impassively with arms crossed as my relentlessly playful and impish niece tried to lure me into a silly game.

Now I’m one of the most spontaneously playful people you’re liable to meet. It’s a point of pride that I can coax the most sullen kid to play along with me. The idea that I would ever actively resist a child wanting to play is unthinkable.  And yet there I was, refusing to play along, on purpose. Why?

Because this was one of those moments when the intellect really does inform the soul. Playing with a child, as a child, might as well have been an official religious ritual or an article of the creed for me.  It is that essential to my view of what life is about. But I’d lost my faith. Perhaps there was no God.  And therefore no guarantor to declare that what seemed precious in life actually was.

Which was another way of saying there was no soul. No basis for love, no such thing as a relationship. No “breath of the spirit” in a living being,  nothing to be exchanged but flesh, matter itself.  Ideas and emotions might pass between individuals, but they were mere extensions of the body, ultimately defined by their support for the physical function of organ systems, cells, proteins, molecules, atoms and quarks.

I knew that E. O. Wilson was a scholar with a deep appreciation for the humanities who respected the vital contribution of faith and religion in human history. But I also knew he saw no future in it.  The only way forward, he concluded, “must ultimately be the secularization of the human epic and of religion itself.”

Wilson is still one of my favorite scholars, but even back then, in the midst of my crisis, I could tell he had no deep sense of what it was like to be a religious adult. No secular epic could ever be a stand in for the place in the heart and mind where faith in the Transcendent had been. Wilson’s way forward wasn’t going to work for a theology teacher at a Jesuit boy’s high school.

Yet, I couldn’t go back. I thought about other careers for a few months, but after that day in the backyard I was also resolved that the inner obstacles responsible for my standing aloof from the joy and freedom of play had to be confronted.


I hadn’t ever expected to have a problem with science and faith. Nihilism wasn’t the voice of science I grew up with.  Jaques Cousteau was a TV hero for me as a kid. I saw him as a prophet who’d found God on undersea mountaintops.


“It takes generosity to discover the whole through others. If you realize you are only a violin, you can open yourself up to the world by playing your role in the concert.”

-Jaques Ives Cousteau

Jewish medical researcher Jonas Salk was a miracle worker my grandmother made sure I encountered. When asked by reporters why he refused to claim personal possession of the Polio vaccine he created,  he is reported to have replied:


“Can one patent the sun?”

What more powerful voice for humility and spiritual purity could there be?

In high school I was exposed to the thought of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, French Paleontologist and Priest, who called Christ himself “The Evolver.” 6a00d8341cbf9a53ef0120a625e773970b-800wiI didn’t do any of the explicit intellectual work to reconcile the meaning models of faith and evolution as a young person,  but by the time I was a young adult I had a deeply felt intuitive sense that there was no real conflict between scientific and religious world views. When I became a young father I had no trouble explaining to my inquiring six-year old that Genesis was “just a story” and that he could safely go on counting years backward to the dinosaurs by the millions.

When intellectual disequilibrium did finally come in my 40’s, I had the luxury of time to read and think about faith and science. I took graduate courses at a local Catholic University. I was given a 6-month sabbatical to write an interdisciplinary course so that I could begin to lead high school students through questions like these. I even had an opportunity to sit at the feet of a Jesuit priest at a retreat center on the Oregon coast who’d spent his life as a particle physicist, talking with some of the very scholars who’d launched  me into my confrontation with the void.

Today, I am grateful to say that encounters with the world as it is, from stars and minerals to bird song and myelin sheaths, again call forth the same inexpressible response of humility and exaltation I felt as a youth.  The way I feel when I hear Gregorian Chant or fall under the spell of a transcendentally honest passage in the writings of Thomas Merton.

Photo James Burton

But the way I think about science and faith, the concepts, terms and angles of approach I take in order to explicitly label reality, are very different from when I was 30. It would take a longer entry to explain the model I use in my own mind to think about “God” in a way that includes what I accept scientifically about the world. Suffice it to say that I have become more comfortable with the conditional nature of everything we use to claim or represent the transcendent while at the same time deepening my respect for the way many of those  traditional forms point to an inexpressible  truth I can touch in experience.

I don’t think it is arrogance to say that most people and cultures struggling with how to reconcile faith and science today aren’t having the argument out in intellectual forums like the ones by which I have been so well-served. Explicitly intellectual approaches to reality–physical or spiritual–suit very few people. For most of humanity, the conflict between faith and science is mediated in clashing stories, images and cultural forms. Claims and counter claims that compete on bumper stickers rather than in clear and distinct ideas settled by argument.


People “feel” this crisis in their bones more than they “think” about it, though they think they are thinking about it. This is the way cultural forms work. Biblical narratives,rituals and religious icons aren’t intellectual assertions. They encode meaning and values holistically, organically if you will.

But make no mistake, underneath those forms, the “content” of faith–or its absence– is contained and communicated.

Images from works by Giotto and Cimabue 14th Century

Images from works by Giotto and Cimabue 14th Century

If you circulate in Catholic circles, you know that there is a lot of talk about the “New Evangelization” today. Evangelization is the effort to spread the “good news” one has discovered to others who need to hear it. This can be a wonderful, generous kind of service. Many people do live in “darkness” and are in desperate need of enlightenment.  But two perspectives ought to underlie any effort to Evangelize someone else:

1. The need to remember the inadequacy of your own  “good news” model for representing reality as it is in all of its complexity and mystery.

2. The complexity and mystery of the inner experience of the other person or group whose outwardly expressed words or ideas may seem erroneous or evil and in need of “evangelization”  to you, may be built upon an inner experience of wisdom and truth you do not yet see.

Can faith communities begin to steer their congregations away from a God they control to a God revealed in an overwhelmingly complex universe that reveals both our terrible smallness and our unique obligation to respond? Can scientists acknowledge that we are a meaning-seeking species?  Can they acknowledge that reason is not the primary way we have evolved to experience meaning and that reason alone cannot keep us from the abyss of despair and self-destruction?

In a previous post highlighting the work of James Orbinski of Doctors Without Borders, I reflected about what seems to me the profoundly “spiritual” posture of the devoted scientist. In short, science isn’t “all about me.”  Attention is turned to the world beyond one’s self, beyond what one prefers or clings to,  in humble awareness. Real scientists are tireless in the pursuit of truth.  And most of the time they aren’t paid much for it.

Obviously, science can go horrifically wrong, both in spirit and deed. But much more frequently, good scientific work nurtures virtues like patience and fortitude.  Virtues my neighbor seems to be arguing for.

Faith and religion do, of course,  go one step further to declare that the source of the overwhelmingly complex truths around us lies ultimately beyond us in God. But, like science, faith also says that the truth is close enough at hand that a child might reach out to touch it.

12th mystic and nature poet Mechthild of Magdeburg seems to hit the sweet spot in this proclamation of the “good news:”

mechthild_portr_01Of all that God has shown me,
I can speak just the smallest word,
not more than a honeybee takes on her foot
from an overspilling jar.

So what’s a good preacher from either the “church” of science or the churches of faith to do in an age when an aggressive scientific narrative is on the rise and many religious institutions are reacting in fear?

Is there an underlying message both can proclaim ?

What is the “good news”  that “fierce champions” of both have to share about the meaning of the universe and the value of a human being? As I’ve listened for it, the message sounds something like this:

“Be not afraid. Even in the face of the profound physical and psychological vulnerability that confronts you, choose love: a radical affirmation of all that is. Choose openness, awareness, generosity.  Life is ultimately meaningful and valuable to a degree far beyond your capacity to control or comprehend. This meaning and value is not defined or created by you. It rests beyond you, but also flows through you. You are response-able, which is to say free–an active agent in your  time and place. You have an obligation in your very nature to serve that which is larger than you, particularly the unique community of human beings who, like yourself, have the capacity to understand and respond in love and service.”


Tree of Life’ Stained glass behind the Altar in the Chapel of the Rosary at Vence, 1948-51 by Henri Matisse

Posted by: cctracker | July 22, 2013

A Lunch Break Mind

Summer Perennials

Photo James Burton

Summer vacation is behind me . But an open week sits between this monday and next when I’ll be back in the office. I’ve scheduled a week of chores.

Re-staining the deck was first on the list. There was something very familiar and comforting about doing the prep work today, but I couldn’t put my finger on what it was until I took a break for lunch and sat staring out from my porch at the street, passing cars, and  flowers in the garden.

I was thinking about almost nothing at all. My mind, my emotions, even the pores on my skin just felt open. Unoccupied. The business at hand, it seemed, was simply rest…doing nothing. A blessed lunch break.

I realized sitting there in that lunch break frame of mind, that I used to spend a lot of time here. From grade school through college I worked manual labor jobs in the summer and had a few other jobs with defined lunch breaks. I don’t think I consciously knew how full of peace and significance those many hours were when I went through them as a younger man, but I can retrieve their felt value now, even if I can’t capture it in words.

My neighbors a few houses east have house painters working today. I’d seen them sitting around, nearly motionless, earlier in the morning and for a moment I couldn’t understand what was going on. It was as if they were all floating in a pool of dead-quite water. They are laborers attending to demanding, mundane, repetitive tasks that nevertheless require skill and focus and they work along with millions and millions of others like them. But at some point they take a break to rest for a few moments in an open space that somehow stamps them as beings not workers, with a nature and purpose larger than any contract for services rendered.

Today I am a worker again, so I took a lunch break and there was a crucial grace for me in the moment. An opportunity to viscerally remember that we are made for being not merely for productivity . God willing, some part of me can remember to step into the grace of being next week, back at the office.

Posted by: cctracker | July 7, 2013

So It Goes?

It’s been over a month since the last post.  I wouldn’t have thought a technical political column–about healthcare policy in this case–could provide enough spark to restart the engine. But Ross Douthat‘s column in today’s NYT is really about something more universal than universal health coverage: namely, how fraught with inner and outer obstacles is the human community’s struggle to face vital, practical and essentially undisputed truths, much less to craft policies and laws that reflect them.

A Hidden Consensus on Health Care –

Douthat claims that the ultimate solution to the healthcare crisis is the gradual expansion of the exchanges and the eventual elimination of employer  benefits. He also says this truth is basically clear to both parties, though neither can say so publicly.  In this case, “the truth” happens to suit my politics, but I don’t think that’s why I find his perspective so compelling. At a deeper level, the column is about rationality vs. irrationality in human social evolution; it’s a study of how profitable and seductive exploitative and self-serving rhetoric can be.

So what should our response be to such a story? Should it be anger with the ideologues and opportunists who hold so much of the political field? Or with ourselves because we’re so compliant when they massage us with narratives and rhetoric that make us feel like the other side is the enemy and that very little will be required of us since we’ve been right all along?

The cultivation of humility before truths larger than ourselves and  generosity toward others and the future we may never see is the fundamental work of “spirituality.” Without its influence in our culture by whatever means, explicitly religious or not, our political leaders will continue lying in order to lead us and a truly human culture will continue to be obscured by ominous, threatening clouds.

Posted by: cctracker | May 17, 2013

The Return of an Ordinary Question

Driving my youngest son home from college across low, rolling midwest hills yesterday evening, a chord of sweet melancholy opened up in my chest.  Of course, you can never completely trace the origin of such a thing.

But when I scanned the inner horizon for at least a partial answer, I found one in the fields and forest margins passing by outside the car window. I realized that the drama of transformation from the dormant desolation of  bleached straw-brown and bark-brittle gray to luscious, stalk-tall and fully unfurled leafy green had finally played itself out on the landscape. A warm, evening breeze was gently ushering out the posture of daily astonishment at the reckless, passionate miracles of spring as the stable colors and texture of the carpet of summer delivered me back into the days where we live most of our lives. Spring was over. Ordinary time had returned. There was an ache of loss in the moment, but deep consolation, too.

For all my long romance with the novelty of Fall and Spring and despite a natural inclination to drama in my search for God and Meaning, with every year that passes I see more clearly that it is our engagement with the ordinary that carries the most valuable, enduring graces. Underneath the rituals, prayers and feast days, our great spiritual traditions seem to be asking: Can you accept the ordinary on its own terms rather than imposing your own meaning and romance on it? Can you allow whatever meaning and wonder is there to emerge on its own from the weed-lots and slush piles of the long seasons of summer and winter? Can you linger in the moment of a casual conversation?  Savor a monday night dinner?  Touch a tired cheek just before a spouse falls asleep? If so, then perhaps you can hold your present experience up next to the light of the promises of faith and see that they are already yours.

Last night I inhaled the first warm night of summer from behind the wheel and watched the sky turn from blue to violet while my son fell asleep. For a few miles on a Missouri Interstate, life and prayer had come together.

Posted by: cctracker | April 3, 2013

My Life as a Dragonfly

I came to this article in the middle of a busy workday.

Dragonflies, Nature’s Deadly Drone

The miraculous video left me slack-jawed and stupefied. I moved to the article scarcely shifting in my chair, my mind wheeling back and forth between memories of watching dragonflies on a algae-clogged pond when I was six years old and the new worlds opened  for me by this glimpse into their bizarre and mind-bending habits and  life cycles.

How does one even attempt to jump from the overwhelming density and complexity of the revelations about these creatures’ reality into any kind of abstraction about what dragonflies “mean,” or to what “other reality” they might point?

Time stopped. I was elsewhere, but as a dragonfly: whirling over water with them, my mind all eye, my body infinitely subtle and strong, caressing a sprig of grass before alighting, the experience somehow, however faintly, reminding me of the way I used to feel when I could linger for a split second over the decision about just how soon–or late– to clip a tennis ball spinning up off the court, fat and obvious, to my forehand .

Now, trying to collect thoughts and choose a word, I might say I felt “joy.” But that is a poor placeholder for the experience of these few minutes of vanishing into the fierce exuberance of physicality.


Photo James Burton

Posted by: cctracker | March 25, 2013

Snow Day Dreamscape: Limbs and Lines for the Lingering Eye


surface 2

Photos James Burton

Posted by: cctracker | March 22, 2013

Twitter Offers a Glimpse of the ‘Noosphere’


Image at

I was really struck by this image on the NYT page tonight.

It ran in an article about three Twitter posts by Yoko Ono on the occasion of the 44th anniversary of her marriage to John Lennon. She posted  images of John’s bloodied glasses from the night he was shot with messages about the need to address gun violence in the United States. The image here captures the patterns and density of global sharing of the posts on Twitter. The article notes the particularly strong response in Mexico, plagued for so many years now by the gun violence driven by drug cartels.

teilhard de chardin

Teilhard de Chardin, the French Priest, paleontologist and theologian who rooted his whole approach to God and meaning in evolutionary dynamics before most Christian thinkers had even begun to confront evolution as a theological problem, claimed that one day our evolving technology would make it possible for human beings to experience a new “layer” of global human consciousness, one so  pervasive, accessible and rich that it would enable  a great leap forward in our capacity for spiritual connection to one another, to God. He called this new moment in the cosmic drama of creation the “noosphere:” an all-enveloping context of interpersonal love and response.

I spend a lot of energy worrying about how we’re going to hold on to our humanity as our technology accelerates.

But when I saw this image of the entire world responding to the plea of an 80-year old woman, still willing to imagine a better world in honor of her her husband and his dream, it was like catching a fleeting glimpse of a shooting star, a bright light in the dark sky over what is, perhaps, still a very young planet.

Posted by: cctracker | March 21, 2013

Becoming the All-Terrain Human –

The NYT is running an astonishing portrait of a man who may be the greatest endurance athlete in recorded history: Kilian Jornet. Read the piece here:

Becoming the All-Terrain Human –

The title of the piece hooked me right away.  I expected amazing statistics and they are certainly there, but that title also gave me an appetite for finding something spiritual in the piece. Something about the human potential for connection to the landscape.

A few pages in, I found just the gem I was hoping for:

“His parents tried to instill a sense of humility and a deep feeling for the landscape. ‘Por las noches we walk out to the wood, the forest, without lamp,’ [Jornet’s  Mother] says, describing how she sometimes took Jornet and his sister, Naila, a year and a half younger and today also a SkiMo racer, out barefoot into the night dressed only in pajamas. Listen to the forest, their mother told them. Feel the direction of the wind against your cheeks, the way the pebbles change underfoot. Then she made her children lead the way home in the darkness. “All this,” she says, “to feel the passion of the nature.”

After a week of “Office Marathoning” I’m missing exposure to that passion.  I’m overdue to get outdoors for a long run in the elements, even on a still very cold, early spring evening. Jornet was raised running in mountains.  I’ll be on asphalt, but  in his honor I’ll imagine myself jogging up through an alpine meadow with the snow melting from the peaks and the mountain sunflowers in full glory.

Alpine Meadow

Photo James Burton

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