Sunday, January 24, 2010

What is Faith? - Marcus Borg

In The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith, Marcus Borg examines faith through four lenses, each encapsulated in a Latin word. Marcus then synthesizes these four views to provide a fuller picture of faith. Marcus' picture of faith goes far, far beyond the idea of faith as giving intellectual assent to a set of beliefs.

Having grown up within the Roman Catholic Church and its faith-as-belief system, I am moved and excited by Marcus Borg's picture of faith.

FAITH AS VISIO. Visio is faith as seeing: the way we see the world. Marcus says that there are three possible overall ways to see the world: as hostile, as indifferent, as gracious.

If we see the world as hostile, Marcus says that we will respond defensively. We will set up systems to protect ourselves from a threatening reality. If we see the world as indifferent, Marcus says that we will also respond by seeking to protect ourselves, though with less paranoia. A hostile universe is out to get us, while an indifferent universe is not. Yet we need systems to keep ourselves safe in both cases: whether from active threats or from nature's vagaries.

Faith, though, Marcus says, invites us to see the world as gracious. Nature is abundant, beautiful, and varied. The world is full of feasts for the eyes (sunrises and sunsets, gardens, clouds, butterflies), for the ears (bird songs, music, rain and wind, silence), for the skin (the touch of our animal friends, warm clothes, running water, breeze), for the nose (sweet olive, coffee, rose, mint), for the tongue (chocolate, strawberry, peach, oregano, pepper). Our minds are storehouses of pleasurable material--our memories, our thoughts, our imaginations. We can experience the deep joy of creation--writing, music, visual art, ritual, celebrations, decorated space, inventions, ways to serve and give enjoyment to others. We have each other--our families, friends, colleagues, neighbors.

I would say that seeing the world as gracious includes an acknowledgment of those places where we will encounter hostility or indifference in an overall gracious world. Thus, it is well to recognize the evil of which people are capable and to take sensible precautions--locking doors in the city and suburbs, staying out of dangerous neighborhoods, being alert when walking on the street at night--for some people will indeed hurt us. It is also well to respect nature--seeking shelter during a thunderstorm, evacuating for a serious hurricane, avoiding contact with poison ivy--for lightning, hurricanes, and poison ivy operate indiscriminately.

I would say that seeing the world as gracious leads us to relax at the core our being, to enjoy our lives, and to be grateful. If we are accustomed to seeing the world as hostile or indifferent, I believe that we can move into seeing the world as gracious by consciously practicing relaxation, enjoyment, and gratitude. These are certainly things that I need to do because I did grow up seeing the world as hostile. I was actually taught by my father that the world is a dangerous place where rapists and other criminals abound and that people in general don't care about you and are out only for themselves. I was taught by the Catholic Church that a God of Wrath was always ready to judge and punish me unless I believed correctly and avoided sin.

So here are some ways to practice faith as visio.

  • Relaxation at my core. Set aside time daily to relax into centering prayer.
  • Enjoyment of life. Plan a weekly artist date, as described by Julia Cameron in The Artist's Way, and consciously enjoy it. Plan one or more small pleasures to consciously enjoy daily: a pot of ginger tea, a piece of dark chocolate, a bike ride on the levee, a hot shower, a good book, a talk with a friend.
  • Gratitude. Take time each evening to thank God for the blessings of the day. Expand this into additional times of gratitude throughout the day. Expand this into a continuous prayer of gratitude. Thank at least one person for something every day.
FAITH AS FIDELITAS. Fidelitas is faithfulness. Marcus says that we show our faithfulness to God by "being attentive to the relationship" (page 33). Marcus explains, "We are attentive through the simple means of worship, prayer, practice, and a life of compassion and justice" (pages 33-34).

I see this as nurturing one's relationship with God as one would nurture one's relationship with a spouse, a daughter or son, a sister or brother, a friend.

FAITH AS FIDUCIA. Fiducia is faith as trust. Marcus says that fiducia is "radical trust in God" (page 31). Marcus says that "faith is like floating in seventy thousand fathoms of water" (page 31). Marcus continues, "Faith as trust is trusting in the buoyancy of God. Faith is trusting in the sea of being in which we live and move and have our being" (page 31).

In the Catholic Church, I did not learn to trust God. I learned to fear God instead. Not only did I learn that God would judge and punish me for wrong belief and for sinful thoughts and acts, but I also learned that even God's love was painful. According to the Catholic Church, God actually sends suffering to those God loves. The saints, for example, were especially close to God, and they suffered a lot. Most saints suffered terrible illnesses or were tortured for their faith or were allowed to share in the sufferings of Jesus through such odd and painful phenomena as the stigmata. If not, they became pleasing to God through inflicting suffering on themselves: fasting, wearing hair shirts, fashioning a crown of thorns for themselves, flagellating themselves. As a child, I knew that I didn't want God to love me too much because I didn't want all that pain. God was not someone I wanted to get close to.

To this day, I struggle with fear that, if I indicate a desire for closeness with God or a changed life, God will grant my request in a terribly painful way. I think, for example, of Joni Eareckson Tada, who prayed that God would change her life--and shortly thereafter she had a diving accident that left her paralyzed from the neck down for life. As a result, Joni has indeed experienced a changed life and a much deeper relationship with God--but this truly horrifies me and makes me VERY hesitant to ask for those things. I DON'T want a deeper relationship with God if it means paralysis or pain. I've heard many stories of people who asked for those things--and ZAP--they were placed in extremely painful situations that did result in changed lives and closeness with God--but at what cost! A cost I don't want to pay.

Well, and don't you know, Marcus says that the opposite of fiducia is worry and anxiety--exactly what I have just expressed in the preceding paragraph. And exactly what my life is full of. I am a person who frequently worries and feels anxious.

Marcus cautions that, if we recognize worry and anxiety in ourselves, the idea is not at all to come down on ourselves harshly. Rather, Marcus invites us to "recognize the good news implicit in this realization" (page 32). Marcus reminds us, "Growth in faith as trust casts out anxiety. . . . Faith as radical trust has great transforming power" (page 32).

I understand this to mean that, as a person with high levels of worry and anxiety, I have plenty of material with which to practice fiducia! I can certainly take baby steps in fiducia and grow gradually in trust. I would say that the ways to practice fiducia are very similar to the ways that I have listed above for practicing visio, which is closely related. I would simply add to the practice of relaxation at my core: besides setting aside time daily to relax into centering prayer, it would be well to take a few moments to do so right when I notice myself becoming worried and anxious.

FAITH AS ASSENSUS. First, Marcus clarifies that the view of assensus as mere intellectual assent to a set of beliefs is a misunderstanding.

Second, Marcus puts forth three affirmations that he sees as central to Christianity: affirming the reality of God, the centrality of Jesus, and the centrality of the Bible. I can affirm the reality of God and even the centrality of Jesus. About affirming the centrality of Jesus, Marcus says, "It means seeing Jesus as the decisive disclosure of God and of what a life full of God looks like. It means affirming Jesus as the Word of God, the wisdom of God, the light of the world, the way, and more, all known in a person" (pages 37-38). Yes, I can affirm that.

I find it hard, though, to affirm the centrality of the Bible. About the centrality of the Bible, Marcus says, "Just as Jesus is for us the Word of God disclosed in a person, so the Bible is the Word of God disclosed in a book. Being Christian means a commitment to the Bible as our foundation document and identity document. The Bible is our story. It is to shape our vision of life--our vision of God, of ourselves, and of God's dream for the earth" (page 38). Oh, my! No. The Bible is not my identity document, and it is not my story. It is the identity document of the extremely patriarchal Hebrew culture, and it is the story of the men of that culture. What on earth can Marcus Borg be thinking?

Well, okay, I can affirm the reality of God and the centrality of Jesus, but not the centrality of the Bible. However, I am not going to concern myself with the Bible right now.

I should also mention that Marcus qualifies what Christians affirm: "Christian faith as assensus means to affirm all of the above deeply but loosely. Deeply: faith involves our loyalty and trust and seeing at the deepest level of the self. Loosely: we need to avoid the human tendency toward excessive precision and certitude" (page 38). In other words, we recognize that, while these are our central affirmations, other religious faiths very legitimately hold other persons and scriptures as central. Thus, we affirm what we affirm in humility and openness. We don't know everything, and others have deep wisdom from other sources. We do not have the exclusive truth.

Finally, Marcus explains the way to understand assensus, which is found in the meaning of the word credo, with which the creed begins. Marcus says, "But credo does not mean 'I hereby agree to the literal-factual truth of the following statements.' Rather its Latin roots combine to mean 'I give my heart to' " (page 40).

Therefore, Marcus explains, here is what we are saying when we say the creed: "Thus, when we say credo at the beginning of the creed, we are saying, 'I give my heart to God.' And who is that? Who is the God to whom we commit our loyalty and allegiance? The rest of the creed tells the story of the one to whom we give our hearts: God as the maker of heaven and earth, God as known in Jesus, God as present in the Spirit" (page 40).

Marcus says, "Most simply, 'to believe' meant 'to love.' Indeed, the English words 'believe' and 'belove' are related. What we believe is what we belove. Faith is about beloving God" (page 40). To belove God, Marcus says, is "to love God and to love that which God loves" (page 41). We develop and demonstrate this love through acts of compassion and justice.

WHAT IS FAITH? Faith is beloving God. We love God and we love those God loves--ourselves, other people, all creation--and we show this love through acts of compassion and justice. We see the world God created as gracious, and we demonstrate this vision by relaxing at our core, enjoying our lives, and expressing gratitude. We are faithful to nurturing our relationship with God. We grow in deep trust of God.

Faith as Belief: A Modern Phenomenon - Karen Armstrong and Marcus Borg

Many Christians today understand Christian faith as giving intellectual assent to a set of beliefs. Such Christians would also say that one should live according to Jesus' teachings on attitudes and behavior. But they would insist that, without basic orthodox beliefs, one can't call oneself a Christian.

In my previous post, I showed how Karen Armstrong learned that other religions emphasize faith as practice rather than belief. In fact, the view of faith as belief is quite recent.

On page xi of her Introduction to The Case For God, Karen Armstrong explains that people from pre-historic times until the Enlightenment understood the difference between logos, or rational thought, and mythos, or mythical thought. Karen says that rational thought helps us to function in the external physical world: to fashion tools, to build structures, to solve problems. Rational thought deals in facts. On the other hand, Karen says that mythical thought helps us to understand our psyches: to move through grief, to face life with courage, to love deeply. Mythical thought deals in symbols.

Pre-Enlightenment people understood the difference between a factual account and a myth. A factual account tells about something that happened at a particular time, in a particular place, in a particular way. A factual account is true if the events recounted actually happened in the physical world as stated. A myth is not a factual account. Karen Armstrong says, "A myth was never intended as an accurate account of a historical event; it was something that had in some sense happened once but that also happens all the time" (page xi). A myth is true in the sense that it imparts deep truths about life.

This distinction of logos and mythos was lost during the Enlightenment, the period of time in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries when science came into its own. Karen Armstrong explains that the huge success of science, based on rigorous rational thought, led to an over-emphasis on logos. Karen explains that science brought wonderful technological and economic improvements to people's lives and that people, therefore, began to rely exclusively on rational thought to the inclusion of mythical thought.

Karen Armstrong shows that people even began to apply rational thought inappropriately to myth. For many, it became impossible to believe in God as portrayed in the Bible because many of the Bible accounts are not factually true. Mythical truth was abandoned. Karen says, "In particular, the meaning of the word 'belief' changed, so that a credulous acceptance of creedal doctrines became the prerequisite of faith, so much so that today we often speak of religious people as 'believers,' as though accepting orthodox dogma 'on faith' were their most important activity" (page xv).

Marcus Borg, in The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith, puts it like this: "For many, Christian faith began to mean believing questionable things to be true--as assenting to the truth of claims that have become 'iffy' " (page 29).

This misguided effort to apply rational thought to myth has resulted in at least three responses.

  • Fundamentalism. Karen Armstrong points out that, to hold onto their faith in a purely rational world, fundamentalists insist on giving rational intellectual assent to religious teachings and stories. Christian fundamentalists insist on believing the Bible to be factually true and and on interpreting the Bible in a literal way that was foreign to earlier Christians.
  • Atheism. Karen Armstrong also points out that Atheists, especially today's New Atheists, respond to this literal interpretation of religion--which seems completely incredible to them--with a rejection of the whole idea of God.
  • Drifting. Marcus Borg points out that many people are spiritually adrift. They can't give intellectual assent to the incredible accounts in the Bible, so they see no place for themselves within Christianity, and they have found nothing to replace it.
This indicates to me that we have actually regressed in our religious understanding. Many of us simply don't understand mythical thought. We apply rational thought to everything, even when it is not appropriate. We do this because logos is all we know. We have lost the whole marvelous and necessary faculty of mythos.

Faith as Belief vs. Faith as Practice - Karen Armstrong

This post will contrast the understanding of faith as belief, which is the understanding held by many present-day Christians, and the understanding of faith as practice, which is the understanding held by other religions. I will draw on Karen Armstrong's insights from her second memoir, The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness, which chronicles Karen's life in the world after seven years of convent life as a nun, and her most recent book, The Case For God. Karen examines the Jewish, Muslim, and Buddhist view of faith as practice rather than belief.

In The Spiral Staircase, Karen Armstrong describes her surprise at learning that other religions do not subscribe to a set of beliefs. Karen first learned this during a lunch-time conversation with her Jewish friend Hyam Maccoby. Hyam explained to Karen that Jesus, a practicing Jew of his time, may have belonged to the school of Rabbi Hillel, a leading Pharisee, who summarized the whole of Jewish teaching in this way: " 'Do not do unto others as you would not have done unto you' " (page 235).

Karen couldn't quite understand how the whole of Jewish teaching would not include at least some specific beliefs. So she asked Hyam, " 'What about faith? What about believing in God? What were those pagans supposed to believe?' " (page 235).

Karen reports Hyam's reply: " 'Easy to see that you were brought up Christian.' Hyam didn't have a high opinion of Christianity, I noticed. 'Theology is just not important in Judaism, or in any other religion, really. There's no orthodoxy as you have it in the Catholic Church. No complicated creeds to which everybody must subscribe. No infallible pronouncements by a pope. Nobody can tell Jews what to believe. Within reason, you can believe what you like' " (page 235).

Karen describes how stunned she felt at this: " 'No official theology?' I repeated stupidly. 'None at all? How can you be religious without a set of ideas--about God, salvation, and so on--as a basis?' " (page 236).

And here is Hyam's answer: " 'We have orthopraxy instead of orthodoxy,' Hyam replied calmly, wiping his mouth and brushing a few crumbs off the table. ' "Right practice" rather than "right belief." That's all. You Christians make such a fuss about theology, but it's not important in the way you think. It's just poetry, really, ways of talking about the inexpressible. We Jews don't bother much about what we believe. We just do it instead' " (page 236).

Karen Armstrong found this same emphasis on faith as practice in Islam. In The Spiral Staircase, she says of Islam, "Muslims had to cultivate within themselves a caring, generous spirit that made them want to give graciously to all, just as God himself did. By concrete acts of compassion, performed so regularly that they became engrained, Muslims would find that both they and their society would be transformed" (page 280). Karen also says, "Repeated actions would lead to the cultivation of a new awareness. The point is that this was not a belief system, but a process. The religious life designed by Muhammad made people act in ways that were supposed to change them forever" (page 281).

In The Case for God, Karen Armstrong recounts a story told of the Buddha. The Buddha insisted that his monks practice a complete program of yoga that emphasized acts of compassion, and he refused to discuss questions of belief with them. One monk, however, simply couldn't pull his mind away from cosmic questions. Karen says, "One of his monks was a philosopher manque and, instead of getting on with his yoga, constantly pestered the Buddha about metaphysical questions: Was there a god? Had the world been created in time or had it always existed?" (page 23).

The Buddha refused to discuss this. As Karen reports, "What difference would it make to discover that a god had created the world? Pain, hatred, grief, and sorrow would still exist. These issues were fascinating, but the Buddha refused to discuss them because they were irrelevant: 'My disciples, they will not help you, they are not useful in the quest for holiness; they do not lead to peace and to the direct knowledge of Nirvana' " (page 23).

Karen explains further about Nirvana and the role of acts of compassion in attaining Nirvana: "Nirvana was the natural result of a life lived according to the Buddha's doctrine of anatta ('no self'), which was not simply a metaphysical principle but, like all his teachings, a program of action. Anatta required Buddhists to behave day by day, hour by hour, as though the self did not exist" (page 24). Further, Karen explains, "By far the best way of achieving anatta was compassion, the ability to feel with the other, which required that one dethrone the self from the center of one's world and put another there. Compassion would become the central practice of the religious quest" (page 24).

This post has shown how Karen Armstrong came to understand faith as practice rather than belief, as she studied Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism. My next post will examine how Christians became so fixated on faith as belief.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Karen Armstrong's Through The Narrow Gate--Religious Life continued

This post will continue my thoughts on why religious life didn't work for Karen Armstrong, as she describes in her book Through the Narrow Gate: A Memoir of Spiritual Discovery. I will begin by repeating the quote from my last post that sums up the difficulty with Karen's religious training. On page 252, a nun whom Karen calls Mother Melinda tells what she had heard from a priest who was a psychologist: " 'He was saying that the traditional way of training nuns has been to keep them in a prepubescent state by treating them like children--you know, do as you're told, no responsibility, no mention of sex, no men, no freedom.' "

The religious life, or the caricature of it presented as an ideal to Karen, asked nuns to do the impossible--to live in a way that was utterly incompatible with who we are as human beings. Some nuns were able to live the religious life because they could ignore the humanity-denying trivia and concentrate on the essentials. Others were only able to live a soul-less cartoon of the religious life by strongly suppressing their humanity. Unfortunately, these latter nuns were the ones who trained Karen. Karen, with the humanity-suppressing example before her, simply couldn't do it. Her effort led to a nervous breakdown. Here are some of the difficulties that Karen experienced.

OVER-EMPHASIS ON EMOTIONAL SELF-EMPTYING. The professed religious life involves emptying oneself so that one can be filled by God. One works to purge oneself of attachment to preferences and to emotional states. The goal, though, is not the self-emptying but the union with God.

Unfortunately, many of the practices specified by Karen's superiors led to a pre-occupation with self. For example, Karen and the other nuns were required to exam their consciences in minute detail twice a day and to record their failings in a notebook. For Karen, this was a constant reminder of her self-absorption. She kept seeing how full of self she was and how far from the ideal of self-emptying. She was constantly discouraged.

This emphasis on emptying, emptying, emptying simply kept the focus on how full I am of self, self, self. It practically guaranteed that one would never move beyond self-emptying into experiencing God's filling. In addition, it produced empty, shell-like nuns, all of whom were focused on self-emptying.

NO PARTICULAR FRIENDSHIPS. Everything about the religious life was set up to discourage particular friendships. Silence was the norm except at communal recreation. Nuns were not to engage in conversation in twos but only when a third was present. Each nun was to communicate solely with God.

This, of course, ignores the fact that humans are social beings. One hugely important way that we experience God's love is through the love of a friend. Not to allow friendship produced nuns starving for love. Karen recounts the story of the two rival convent cats, Ming and Sebastian. Certain nuns of Karen's convent favored Ming while others favored Sebastian. One day, when Sebastian tore Ming's ear in a fight, a nun whom Karen calls Mother Imelda became so distraught over her dear wounded Ming that she couldn't stop weeping, had to receive sedatives from a doctor, and was given bed rest for three days. The need for tangible love came out in this exaggerated way with cats.

Karen suffered greatly from the prohibition of friendship. She also saw that the constant self-policing to avoid particular friendships produced an aloofness or even coldness in many of the nuns. The convent was an emotionally cold place, lacking the warmth of friendship. Karen was isolated and lonely.

Adding to Karen's isolation was the fact that her superiors, to whom she was allowed--even required--to talk freely about her spiritual progress, simply would not listen to her. These superiors had fixed ideas and rejected anything that didn't fit. For example, when Karen confided that she absolutely never experienced consolation in prayer, her superior replied that she was exaggerating. Thus, the one person in whom Karen was allowed to confide--her superior--simply rejected Karen's difficulties as impossible. Karen really had no one to turn to.

MENTAL DISTORTIONS. Karen was forced to perform mental distortions in the area of obedience. Obedience requires that nuns do whatever their superior asks without question, no matter how much the nun may disagree with the command or even find it absurd. Karen, for example, was ordered to practice sewing daily on a machine that had no needle, to scrub the pavement with a tiny nailbrush, and to eat cheese even though it caused her to throw up. She struggled constantly to convince herself that such pointless or even harmful orders were God's will.

Karen also struggled mentally with Catholic doctrines. At one point, she produced an essay proving incontrovertibly that Jesus physically rose from the dead, all the while knowing that her essay lacked intellectual integrity.

Such mental distortions became all the more difficult as Karen's mind began to awaken through her study of English literature at Oxford. It became nearly impossible for Karen to use her keen mind in her Oxford studies and then to shut off her mind upon her return to the convent.

EPILEPSY. Karen began to suffer epileptic seizures while in the convent. To the nuns, she was engaging in a disgusting display of emotions by fainting, and she was sternly admonished to control herself. Of course, this was impossible, since the electric impulses in the brain of a person with epilepsy are not under conscious control. Karen herself, though, believed that her fainting was a shameful failure, and this led to deeper discouragement because she simply could not control it.

SEXUAL REPRESSION. Another area outside Karen's control was sexual arousal. Karen first noticed this when using the discipline. The discipline was a set of cords with which the nuns flagellated themselves to subdue their bodies and to offer penance for sins. The discipline was supposed to be physically painful. Karen, however, found the discipline to be sexually arousing. This was a great conflict for her. She was commanded under obedience to use the discipline daily and she was also supposed to shun sexual pleasure, yet the discipline created sexual pleasure for Karen!

KAREN'S DREAMS. Immediately after her breakdown, Karen experienced a very pointed dream, which she describes on page 245: "Sometimes trying to kill something growing. A plant that keeps putting out new shoots, huge monstrous growth, stabbing and thrashing at it, feeling its pain as the green sap falls in huge drops. But it never dies."

The convent is killing the ways in which Karen's soul is striving to grow. She keeps putting out new vibrant intellectual shoots with her literature studies, but the convent life keeps stabbing at these shoots, calling them monstrosities. The new life won't stop, though. It keeps growing, even in the pain of being stabbed again and again. It won't die.

Oh, my! Karen needs to GET THE HELL OUT before the convent life kills her. And she does.

Karen Armstrong's Through The Narrow Gate--Religious Life

In my previous post, I gave an overview of Karen Armstrong's Through the Narrow Gate: A Memoir of Spiritual Discovery, which tells of Karen Armstrong's life as a nun from 1962 to 1969, ages 17 to 24, in the Society of the Holy Child Jesus in England. In this post, I will begin to look at why religious life did not work out for Karen.

On page 252, Karen pinpoints the crux of the matter. Karen is recuperating from an emotional breakdown, and a fellow nun whom Karen calls Mother Melinda comes to visit her in the infirmary. Mother Melinda had taken a course the previous year with a priest who was a psychologist and who had talked quite a bit with disturbed nuns. Here is what Mother Melinda reports the priest as having said:

" 'He was saying that the traditional way of training nuns was to keep them in a prepubescent state by treating them like children--you know, do as you're told, no responsibility, no mention of sex, no men, no freedom.' "

This method of training seemed to produce at least three types of nuns.

NUNS WHO ACHIEVED TRUE HOLINESS. First, some women, even highly intelligent women like Mother Katherine and Mother Bianca, achieved holiness under this system, probably by seeing through to the core of religious life and holding fast those things that supported union with God while holding loosely those things that were superficial and unhelpful.

NUNS WHO EMBODIED A CARICATURE OF HOLINESS. Second, other women, like Mother Walter and Mother Praetorita, became caricatures of holiness, holding fast to the letter rather than the spirit of the order's rules. Mother Katherine describes this on page 247 as a failure in courage. Here is how Mother Katherine says that these nuns failed in courage: " 'By clinging to the rules as to the rail of a swimming pool. Not being willing ever to go out of their depth and trust that God will hold them up.' "

In other words, these nuns never actually lived the religious life. They remained perpetually in training, and they didn't even allow the training to do what it was intended to do. Instead, they clung to the rules themselves as though rule observance were the religious life, whereas rule observance was simply intended to empty and free one for union with God. These nuns emphasized the emptying, emptying, emptying--but never the living in union with God.

This reminds me of what Frank Schaeffer says about Marine Corps boot camp in Patience With God. Much of what is done in boot camp, such as drills, is preparation for living the life of a Marine. No recruit wants to remain perpetually in boot camp! A recruit accepts the training so that he or she, after three months, can live as a Marine. Clinging to rules indicates fear of risk taking. I know the rules, they are familiar to me, I'll just blindly obey--no thinking, no risk required. This type of nun projected detachment, separation, aloofness, but not aliveness, interest, compassion.

NUNS WHO BROKE UNDER THE STRAIN. Third, some women simply couldn't fit the mold that they believed they had to fit to be a nun. This was the mold held up for them by the rule-obsessed nuns who trained them. Karen was one of these women. She deeply wanted union with God but simply couldn't master her emotions, mind, and body in the ways enjoined by her superiors. Yet she also believed that her failure to achieve this mastery would keep her separated from God. The strain of Karen's constant striving and failing finally led to a nervous breakdown.

In my next post, I will look into some of the specific aspects of religious life that caused difficulty for Karen.

Karen Armstrong's Through The Narrow Gate--Overview

I have just re-read Through the Narrow Gate: A Memoir of Spiritual Discovery by Karen Armstrong. In this memoir, Karen Armstrong writes about her life as a nun. From 1962 to 1969, ages 17 to 24, Karen was a member of a Catholic religious order, the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, in England. This time period includes nine months as a postulant, two years as a novice, and the rest of the time as a professed sister.

The primary ministry of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus is teaching girls and women. Therefore, upon making her religious profession, Karen was sent by her order to study English literature at Oxford, in preparation for teaching. Karen deeply loves literature.

Karen writes of the joys as well as the difficulties of professed religious life, though admittedly, in her case, it was mostly difficulties. She speaks especially of the difficulty she experienced in mastering her emotions, her mind, and her body. Karen often experienced religious life as a struggle to empty herself of what she saw as self-centered emotions (pride in small spiritual victories, hurt at a superior's harshness, frustration at her lack of skill in sewing, boredom with hours of housework) so that she could be filled by God. For Karen, this struggle to master her emotions was consistently unsuccessful.

Karen also had difficulty subduing her mind to accept the religious ideal of blind obedience to superiors, even when their instructions were counter-productive, and the "truth" of Catholic doctrines, even when her mind told her that these doctrines weren't really true. With persistent effort, she forced her mind to stop thinking and just obey--but then came her literature studies at Oxford, which awoke her mind and her deep pleasure in keen thought. As her mind came more and more vibrantly to life through her study of literature, Karen began to question certain practices of the order that she saw were harmful for the nuns, such as the ban on personal friendships and the use of the discipline (a set of cords used by nuns to flagellate themselves as a means of subduing bodily passions and performing penance).

Finally, Karen had her first epileptic seizures in the convent. These were seen by her superiors as spells of fainting due to emotional weakness, and Karen was ordered to stop these emotional displays. Since epileptic seizures are absolutely beyond the control of the will, there was no way for Karen to obey this command. One simply cannot decide to stop the abnormal electrical activity in the brain that causes the seizure. Karen also began to experience sexual arousal while in the convent. This was another aspect of her body that she simply could not control.

In my next post, I will look more closely at why religious life in the Society of the Holy Child Jesus did not work out for Karen.

New Year's Day 2010

New Year's Day was a lovely day filled with things I love to do.

My first act of the New Year was to write in my journal--I did this not long after midnight.

When I awoke in the morning, I went to La Madeleine Coffeehouse, where I read the first Times-Picayune of the New Year and had coffee au lait and tartines.

Then I rode my bicycle on the Mississippi River Levee bike trail as far as the Huey P. Long Bridge and back.

At 1:30 p.m., David and Alex came over for a New Year meal. They brought hummus, crackers, and cucumbers as an appetizer. Then we had black-eyed peas, rice, brussel sprouts (little cabbages), cornbread, and tossed green salad. For dessert, we had cheese, apples, cherries (from Alex), and dark chocolate. Alex told us about her work as an artist (writer and actor) and a therapist in Baltimore.

After our meal, David and I walked on the Mississippi River Levee at sunset.

Later that evening, I spoke with Merry, and I read a good bit of Karen Armstrong's Through the Narrow Gate: A Memoir of Spiritual Discovery, about Karen Armstrong's life as a nun.

New Year's Day was a great start to the New Year 2010. It included writing, reading, a coffeehouse, healthy food, friends, and exercise. May 2010 be a blessed year!