The Paradox of Pentecost — Presence and Absence

A stranger than strange text for today’s Feast of Pentecost, the day the Church celebrates the coming of the Spirit, the Advocate, reads:

“I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you…” [Gospel according to John 16:7].

It is Jesus in John’s Gospel who speaks these words to his disciples. They scratch their heads, like confused children being dropped off at camp against their will. They already sense the homesickness that will come. The thought of being abandoned brings anguish, the foreboding of oncoming forlornness.

The experience of absence, endemic to the human condition, is essential to faith. The feeling of anguished forlornness builds courage, and faith, of one sort or another, with or without an advocate.

Enter Jean-Paul Sartre’s reflections on anguish and forlornness. Fully conscious without religious crutches, I experience the anguish of my responsibility for myself and others, and the forlornness that realizes that I am alone in my decision-making. The decisions are mine along. No one but I am responsible.

Like the disciples, we want it to be otherwise. Some of us pray as though the feelings were a hoax, the Devil’s trickery or God’s pre-ordaining, as though our course were charted by another decision-maker disbelieved by Sartre. But regardless of our faith or faith denials, the truth is that to be human is to know this sense of anguish and forlornness.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the brilliant theologian imprisoned and executed by the Third Reich, caught the sense of it in a letter he wrote from a prison cell.

“The only way to be honest is to recognize that we have to live in the world etsi deus non daretur. And this is just what we do see — before God! So our coming of age forces us to a true recognition of our situation visa a vis God. God is teaching us that we must live as [people] who can get along very well without him. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us (Mark 15:34). God who makes us live in the world without using him as a working hypothesis is the God before whom we are ever standing. Before God and with him we live without God. God allows himself to be edged out of the world and onto the cross. God is weak and powerless in the world, which is exactly the way, the only way, in which he can be with us and help us. Mark 8:17 makes it crystal clear that it is not by his omnipotence that Christ helps us, but by his weakness and his suffering.” [Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, pp 219-220, McMillan Company, 1953, translated from German by Reginald H. Fuller.]

Bonhoeffer’s writing acknowledges the anguish and forlornness that precede the disappearance of the divine usurper of human freedom and responsibility. In place of the bad-faith God who keeps her children in diapers, there comes the advantage of Christ’s going away — the arrival of the Advocate who brings the unexpected joy of coming of age.

“I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you” [Gospel according to John 16:7].

– Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, May 24, 2015 – Feast of Pentecost.

Life begins on the other side of despair

It was Jean-Paul Sartre, the French existentialist novelist, philosopher, and playwright, who declined the Nobel Peace Price for Literature in 1964, who said it. “Life begins on the other side of despair.”

Sartre’s statement resonates with those who have stood at the edge of the abyss of the loss of life’s meaning. Some don’t make it to the other side. Some move to the other side of the abyss with no faith but faith in themselves to create meaning they once ascribed to God or some objective moral order. Others arrive on the other side with their inherited faith not only deconstructed, but re-constructed. I am one of the latter.

Reading of the shooting suicide of a 27-year-old Iraq War veteran philosophy student in the library at Mankato State University takes me back to Sartre’s statement about life and despair. Timothy Lee Anderson was an honorably discharged U.S. Army gunner in Iraq. His picture in The Daily Mail shows him in an Iraqi combat zone with his weapon. In the background of the photo, Iraqi women in traditional Muslim dress appear to be crossing the street. How, I ask, does a guy who served as a gunner in the Iraq War choose philosophy as his major when he comes home to the U.S.A.?

Philosophy is not a popular choice these days. Unlike computer science, it’s not job- related. The word ‘philosophy’ derives from two Greek words meaning love (‘philo‘) of wisdom (‘sophia‘). Philosophy is the love of, and the search for, wisdom.

Wisdom is born of experience, not inheritance. It’s not hard to imagine the dashed, unexamined, inherited convictions of a young Army recruit: a world dependent on American goodness and might; an America with a manifest destiny in the global order; an exceptional nation privileged and responsible, whether by religious or political creed, to bring its blessings to the rest of an ignorant, unenlightened, uncivilized, and sometimes terroristic and defiant world.

Nor is it hard to imagine a soldier’s despair upon return, reflecting on his experience in search for greater wisdom among the philosophers. The early reports of Timothy Lee Anderson’s life experience point to a less than comfortable homecoming with arrests for marijuana and violation of an order for protection. The gun shot he fired at himself on the second floor of the Mankato State University library was a shot of despair, whatever the immediate reasons or circumstances.

The great sorrow is a life that ended too early on the despair side of the yawning abyss of collapsed meaning. It remains to the survivors and the rest of us who look with sadness on Timothy’s tragic departure is to learn the wisdom that claims to religious-national exceptionalism and wisdom go together about as well as bombs and day-care, guns and libraries.

– Gordon C. Stewart, February 3, 2015.

 

 

In Memoriam: the MSU Philosophy Student

“The life of the dead is placed in the memory of the living.” – Cicero

The philosophy student who shot himself in the library at Mankato State University yesterday could have been me many years ago. Or is it “could have been ‘I’”? I or me is a question of grammar without much consequence. Philosophy is a question of meaning. Grammarians don’t shoot themselves. Some philosophers do.

I know nothing about the 27-year-old philosophy major at MSU. I don’t need to know more for tears to fall while reading the Star Tribune news report over morning coffee.

A Minnesota State University Mankato student shot and killed himself Monday afternoon in the campus library.

Police were called about 4 p.m. to the library after receiving a report of a suicidal man. After searching Memorial Library, police found the 27-year-old man, a junior philosophy student, on the second floor. Police said he turned the gun on himself and shot.

Police said no one else was in any danger during the incident.

The library was open Monday evening but with access only to the lower level, first and third floors.

I feel sick. It’s sad enough when anyone takes his or her life. It’s sadder still, at least for me, to learn that he was studying philosophy and that he appears to have found a solitary place on the second floor, perhaps among the stacks in the philosophy section of the library, as I imagine it.

He was a junior, as I was when the course in contemporary philosophy plunged me into deep despair. Psychology majors might have called it depression because it looked like that on my face. But there’s a difference between depression and existential despair.

Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, No Exit and The Flies, and Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis and The Trial were like nothing I had ever read or heard. They blew my mind to smithereens, leaving me very much alone with the sense of nothingness.

By the time I hit the books in the library that junior year, I ate, drank, and slept philosophy. Of the 18 hours of courses I had decided to carry, only the philosophy course seemed important. Raised in a Christian home, I had always prayed, more or less, giving thanks and asking for blessings on those I loved and the less fortunate. But now prayer seemed a cruel hoax, “bad faith” as Jean-Paul Sartre put it. Why I would return from class and kneel down beside my bed not for “now I lay me down to sleep” but to tell God to go to hell is one of the great ironies, a question grammarians cannot answer.  Had I had a gun that afternoon, my roommate might have found me on the floor in Room 301 of Carnegie Hall.

I know nothing of the circumstances or state of mind of the 27-year-old MSU philosophy student. Perhaps no one will ever know for sure. It may be that his experience bears little or no resemblance to mine all those years ago. It’s not for me to know.

I don’t even know your name, but I sure do feel you! And I feel for those who mourn your loss. “That God does not exist, I cannot deny,” wrote Sartre, “That my whole being cries out for God, I cannot forget” – Jean-Paul Sartre.

Almighty God, Father of mercies and giver of comfort: deal graciously, we pray, with all who mourn; that, casting all their care on You, they may know the consolation of Your love. [The Book of Common Prayer]

Rest in Peace

– Rev. Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, Minnesota (an hour from Mankato), Feb. 3, 2015.

Reflections along the way of a terminal illness

Katie and Maggie sharing a moment of sadness. Maggie knew!

Katie and Maggie sharing a moment of sadness. Maggie knew!

Today, three years to the day after Katherine’s (“Katie’s”) death (May 9, 2010), we inter her cremains.

IT’S RAINING, IT’S POURING” was written the day we learned that Katie’s incurable Leiomyosarcoma had taken a turn for the worse. In memory of Katherine (“Katie”) Elizabeth Slaikeu Nolan.

Gordon C. Stewart Feb. 11, 2009

It’s raining, it’s pouring
The old man is snoring
He went to bed and he bumped his head
And couldn’t get up in the morning

It’s a day like that. I bumped my head on the illness of a 33 year-old loved one. It’s raining sadness. I’m having trouble getting out of bed in the morning.

Terminal illness has a way of doing that unless you believe in miracles of divine intervention or you have extraordinary powers of denial.

My spirituality has become increasingly like that of Rebbe Barukh of Medzobaz, an old Hasidic master in Elie Wiesel’s tale of Four Hasidic Masters and Their Struggle Against Melancholy. When he prayed the customary Jewish prayer, “Thank you, Master of the Universe, for your generous gifts – those we have received and those we are yet to receive” – he would startle others with his weeping. ‘Why are you weeping?” one of them asked. “I weep,” he said, “in thanksgiving for the gifts already received, and I weep now for the gifts I have yet to receive in case I should not be able to give thanks for them when they come.”

For my family at this critical time, the real miracle has already occurred – the shared gift of love – and it will come again in ways I cannot now anticipate when the last page of the final chapter of our loved one’s life is over.

The miracles are more natural, nearer to hand. Although I don’t believe in selective divine intervention, I am on occasion a sucker for denial – except on days like this when it’s raining and gray and I’ve bumped my head on the hard fact that cancer is ransacking my loved one’s body. A certain amount of denial, too, is a blessing in disguise, one of God’s generous gifts to keep us sane when the rain pours down and clouds are dark.

Faith comes hard sometimes. In college mine was challenged and refined by Ernest Becker‘s insistence that the denial of death lies at the root of so many of our problems. My faith has been refined along the way by the courage of Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre to face the meaninglessness of the plague, the faith and courage of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Paul Tillich who stuck their fingers in the gears of Nazism, and the humble witness of Mother Teresa working in the slums of Calcutta with more questions than answers and some anger at God.

The job of faith, as I see it, is to live as free as possible from illusion with a trust in the final goodness of Reality itself, despite all appearances to the contrary. Faith is the courage and trust to look nothingness in the eye without blinking or breaking our belief in the goodness of mortal life.

When I look into my loved one’s eyes I see that courageous kind of faith that defies the cancer to define her, and a resilient spirit that makes me weep tears of joy over the gifts we’ve already received and the ones we have yet to come.

It’s still raining and it’s still pouring, but I refuse to snore my way through this. I’ve bumped my head on the news of a loved one’s terminal illness, but I’m getting up in the morning.

POSTSCRIPT March 21, 2012

Conversation yesterday about “The List” posted on Bluebird Boulevard:

Karen:

My mother died of cancer eight years ago. Her loss is still visceral. She is in every bird I see.

Me:

The morning of Katherine’s memorial service Kay, Katherine’s mother, was standing by the large picture window gazing out at the pond in our back yard. Out of nowhere, it seemed, two Great Blue Herons flew directly toward the window and swooped upward just before they got to the house. “She’s here. That’s Katie,” said Kay without a second’s hesitation. On her last day of hospice care, Kay and I each remarked that her face looked like a baby bird. I’m a skeptic about such things. I’ve always been, and always will be, a doubting Thomas. My assumptions and conclusions come the hard way. But on the day the herons flew directly at Kay from across the pond, I saw it with my own eyes…and HAD to wonder.

Within a minute a third Great Blue Heron perched on the log by the edge of the pond and stood alone for a LONG time. It reminded me of a gathering on the steps of the State Capitol in Saint Paul following the tragic deaths of school children at Red Lake, MN. The crowd stopped listening to the speaker. They were looking up. “What’s going on?” I asked Richard, the Red Lake American Indian advocate and my co-worker at the Legal Rights Center.org. “Eagles,” he said. “Where?” “WAY up. They’re circling.”

I learned later that the eagles were also circling at that same moment over the grieving families gathered at Red Lake. I asked American Indian colleague what he took it to mean. “We don’t ask. That’s the white man’s question,” he said. “We just accept it. We live in the mystery.”

It’s Raining, It’s Pouring

Today, three years to the day after Katherine’s (“Katie’s”) death (May 9, 2010), we inter her cremains, an appropriate time to re-post the effect of Katie’s illness along the way. This is a re-posting of a piece written along the way of Katie’s illness.

I wrote this piece when we learned that my stepdaughter Katherine’s incurable Leiomyosarcoma had taken a turn for the worse. In memory of Katherine (“Katie”) Elizabeth Slaikeu Nolan.

Gordon C. Stewart   Feb. 11, 2009

It’s raining, it’s pouring
The old man is snoring
He went to bed and he bumped his head
And couldn’t get up in the morning

It’s a day like that.  I bumped my head on the illness of a 33 year-old loved one.  It’s raining sadness. I’m having trouble getting out of bed in the morning.

Terminal illness has a way of doing that unless you believe in miracles of divine intervention or you have extraordinary powers of denial.

My spirituality has become increasingly like that of Rebbe Barukh of Medzobaz, an old Hasidic master in Elie Wiesel’s tale of Four Hasidic Masters and Their Struggle Against Melancholy.  When he prayed the customary Jewish prayer, “Thank you, Master of the Universe, for your generous gifts – those we have received and those we are yet to receive” – he would startle others with his weeping.  ‘Why are you weeping?” one of them asked.  “I weep,” he said, “in thanksgiving for the gifts already received, and I weep now for the gifts I have yet to receive in case I should not be able to give thanks for them when they come.”

For my family at this critical time, the real miracle has already occurred – the shared gift of love – and it will come again in ways I cannot now anticipate when the last page of the final chapter of our loved one’s life is over.

The miracles are more natural, nearer to hand.  Although I don’t believe in selective divine intervention, I am on occasion a sucker for denial – except on days like this when it’s raining and gray and I’ve bumped my head on the hard fact that cancer is ransacking my loved one’s body.  A certain amount of denial, too, is a blessing in disguise, one of God’s generous gifts to keep us sane when the rain pours down and clouds are dark.

Faith comes hard sometimes.  In college mine was challenged and refined by Ernest Becker‘s insistence that the denial of death lies at the root of so many of our problems.  My faith has been refined along the way by the courage of Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre to face the meaninglessness of the plague, the faith and courage of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Paul Tillich who stuck their fingers in the gears of Nazism, and the humble witness of Mother Teresa working in the slums of Calcutta with more questions than answers and some anger at God.

The job of faith, as I see it, is to live as free as possible from illusion with a trust in the final goodness of Reality itself, despite all appearances to the contrary.  Faith is the courage and trust to look nothingness in the eye without blinking or breaking our belief in the goodness of mortal life.

When I look into my loved one’s eyes I see that courageous kind of faith that defies the cancer to define her, and a resilient spirit that makes me weep tears of joy over the gifts we’ve already received and the ones we have yet to come.

It’s still raining and it’s still pouring, but I refuse to snore my way through this.  I’ve bumped my head on the news of a loved one’s terminal illness, but I’m getting up in the morning.

POSTSCRIPT March 21, 2012

Conversation yesterday about “The List” posted on Bluebird Boulevard:

Karen:

My mother died of cancer eight years ago. Her loss is still visceral. She is in every bird I see.

Me:

The morning of Katherine’s memorial service Kay, Katherine’s mother, was standing by the large picture window gazing out at the pond in our back yard. Out of nowhere, it seemed, two Great Blue Herons flew directly toward the window and swooped upward just before they got to the house. “She’s here. That’s Katie,” said Kay without a second’s hesitation. On her last day of hospice care, Kay and I each remarked that her face looked like a baby bird. I’m a skeptic about such things. I’ve always been, and always will be, a  doubting Thomas. My assumptions and conclusions come the hard way. But on the day the herons flew directly at Kay from across the pond, I saw it with my own eyes…and HAD to wonder.

Within a minute a third Great Blue Heron perched on the log by the edge of the pond and stood alone for a LONG time.  It reminded me of a gathering on the steps of the State Capitol in Saint Paul following the tragic deaths of school children at Red Lake, MN. The crowd stopped listening to the speaker. They were looking up. “What’s going on?” I asked Richard, the Red Lake American Indian advocate and my co-worker at the Legal Rights Center.org. “Eagles,” he said. “Where?” “WAY up. They’re circling.”

I learned later that the eagles were also circling at that same moment over the grieving families gathered at Red Lake. I asked American Indian colleague what he took it to mean. “We don’t ask. That’s the white man’s question,” he said. “We just accept it. We live in the mystery.”