Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Recollected Mitzvah of Mindful Jihadi Dharma

During our undergraduate years at the University of Virginia a friend of mine took a course on church history in the Religious Studies Department. My friend grew up the son of a Baptist minister in the Tidewater area of Virginia. His professor came of Irish-Catholic stock and the rigorous training accorded ordained Jesuit priests. Since the course began with the Reformation, they amounted to a train wreck waiting to happen.

Happen it did. The professor began a lecture early in the term by positing a classroom at the University of Paris in the sixteenth century in which sat two--here comes the crucial part--very similar young men poised to have enormous influence on the history of the Church: Jean Calvin and Ignacio de Loyola. This stunning parallelism, not of their later influence but of their essential similarity, required more tolerance and perhaps humility than my friend possessed. As I recall, he dropped the class that afternoon.

Suggesting similarities across confessional lines within disparate strands of the same faith carries considerable risks. Expand the process to a consideration of spiritually cognate practices across faiths and the trains wreck while carrying hundreds of tankers of jet fuel each. Think World Trade Center; in fact, do think World Trade Center. It makes a good if more than just literally explosive place to begin.

After a brief digression. A friend--my boss--posted an article by Mark Galli in Christianity Today on her Facebook page the other day. The author argued that many people place too much emphasis on transformation in spirituality, which usually involves arriving at a state that feels better than our current one, and thus involves using God as a kind of Good Humor man of the skies. He argues instead for the importance of crisis as the moment in which grace can enter our lives. This same notion occurs in the Greek kairos, a favorite among monastics. Kairos, unlike the hyperactivity of willed transformation, involves waiting, a lot of waiting, something about which monks know a great deal. When the grace-filled moment comes, one acts, but under the aegis of inspirational grace, not one's own self-interested initiative.

Which brings us back to the World Trade Center. My own reading on Islamic countries and their traditions, among them spiritual, has not progressed to a point that makes me any kind of expert. It has become apparent to me, however, that the nineteen young men who kidnapped four planes on September 11, 2001, and succeeded in crashing three of them into their intended or at least secondary--i.e., the Pentagon--targets, believed in a notion of jihad that has two implications for us here. First, most Moslems subscribe to an understanding of jihad that concerns internal struggle, a purifying process, emphasis on process. In Galli's terms, the jihadist who blows himself and a few thousand innocent bystanders into incinerated ash in order to attain martyrdom and a place in Paradise belongs to the camp that ascribes to the transformational fallacy. A jumbo jet or an AK-47 or semtec explosive has replaced the Good Humor man, but the motivation remains the same: self.

Jihad as internal struggle to find Allah within; recollection, the monastic practice of self-reckoning to see where one has strayed from and where one has approached godliness in one's daily life; the Jewish notion of mitzvah, or service, that the Good Samaritan understood better than the priest and the Levite; mindfulness, the Buddhist practice of constant awareness that brings us back from our wanderings into distraction; and dharma, the Hindu notion of calling, or life's purpose, something like what we would call vocation. None of these notions exactly replicates the other, though to perform a mitzvah a state of recollected mindful jihad in one whose dharma called her to service would certainly help--if one could get past all the labels.

Theologians, spare me your quibbles about the (mis-)use of complicated terminology herein. We all struggle, many of us about more or less the same things. We all misunderstand each other. We think that in every Moslem household lurks a Qur'an and an AK-47; the Israelis suspect them all of Judeophobia; the Moslems suspect us--why, one can hardly imagine--of unimpeded hedonism; Buddhists think they alone have preserved monastic traditions; and Hindus are probably more tolerant of others' religious beliefs than the whole lot of us.

And yet we all have language suggesting our interest in the path to God/Yahweh/Allah/ nirvana/atman. We all acknowledge our frailties--just not to each other. So much in recent literature on Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia, and in my own experience, suggests how easily human contact can bridge the chasms of misunderstanding. A Hazara cook for an American NGO in Lashkargah, Afghanistan; a group of Sufi dervishes welcoming an English traveler in Herat near the Iranian border; an Israeli poet with whom I used to amicably if intensely argue about Ariel Sharon; the Pakistani student who begged us at our small college on 9/11 not to blame all Moslems.

All these meetings are moments of kairos, moments when through recollection, through a spirit of mitzvah, of doing service, of sincere jihad, of mindfulness, and of attention to our true dharma, we can experience within ourselves more than ourselves. More indeed than each other, and certainly more and other than our preconceptions of each other.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

From Port-au-Prince, with Dread

As I write my watch has 11:08 p.m., about the time or perhaps even a little earlier than when my friend David Baron used to meet me at the University Diner (the UD in Charlottesville parlance) for various odd-sounding concoctions featuring either grilled doughnuts and ice cream (a grilled-with) or even greasier double-cheeseburger with bacon and a fried egg (one-eyed bacon double cheeseburger). I had a weakness for the latter; we both had a weakness for talking till 2:30 or 3:00.

David and I became friends accidentally. We both had a friend in common who had a passionate relationship going, then going south. David loves to tap into other people's stores of opinions and analyses; I tend not to shy from offering either. So, despite an age difference of several years, we became regulars at the UD. Our mutual friend got us drunk at his party as he left the country for a post-graduation round-the-world odyssey that became both. He thought he espied a homosexual note in the air. Though he wasn't altogether wrong, he didn't exactly have it right, either, and certainly not as a description of my friendship with Baron.

We continued the habit with markedly less frequency later when we both lived in New York , and had a memorable few days at his parents' on Long Island. We were in his parents' car when the news came over NPR of the election of Cardinal Karol Wojtyla as Pope John Paul II, which gave me hope, later disappointed. Later that fall I developed mononucleosis and left New York. Baron--what some of his close friends from Charlottesville call him, though not all--wound up in New Orleans as film critic for The Times Picayune, in which capacity he continued to serve for twenty years. I had a couple of jobs in the art world, then got a couple of graduate degrees en route to teaching for just over a decade. We lost touch, in different worlds.

When I left academia and mental illness took me to the deepest bottom I have known, somehow the idea of Baron appealed to me as one of the logical people with whom to reconnect, after emailing our mutual friend for publishing advice, and hearing in response that he felt sure Baron would love a phone call. I have a tough time with phone bills, and David--that name does come up from time to time--abhors email, so our contact has been fitful. Same old Baron, though--eliciting my reading of the behavior of mutual friends, or rather one of mine and two of his. Somewhat wiser me, pointing out that my erstwhile romantic interest in her hardly qualified me as an interpreter of her husband, whom I had never liked, both for the obvious reason but also because I had never liked him, even before the obvious reason became obvious.

Baron, ever the novelist and critic, needed to see every nuance, and if he couldn't get to enlightenment himself would enlist the help of a guide. Annoying as I sometimes find this tendency--we spend our conversations very often on subjects in which I had little interest--it speaks to a kind of humility on the flip side of the obsessive curiosity. While this may sound hopelessly gossipy, even catty, I would never describe it that way. He simply wanted to know why people treat each other as they do and what precipitates behavior he doesn't understand. Baron is nobody's idea of a saint, and yet his interest in people has always had an element of purity about it, mixed in with some good old-fashioned Eastern European earthy realism. He can shine with the joy of surprise and sting very easily at a slight, real or imagined.

One of his joys has come from teaching, and in a specific place: Haiti. This is why I have allowed my wandering in and out of present and past tenses to stand. As I have gathered, he probably arrived in Port-au-Prince on the 10th, and remained there through the earthquake. I don't know yet if I've just written an obituary for my friend or not. Surely others in our group have stayed closer and have better claim. I just find it very difficult--aside from the fact that we have no facts except that noone apparently has heard anything (no news is no news, I hope)--to shift to the past tense. I see him alive and talking, perhaps even trying to carry on a conversation under the rubble as the only way he knows to stay and keep others alive. Baron babbling in Creole; I'd love to see that.

He has suffered from a long-term illness; the irony of a violent death would have elicited his characteristic low, tailing chuckle. I am at an age when I can begin to expect coevals to succumb to this illness or that. One doesn't imagine losing them this way, if indeed we have lost him--not knowing all manner of thing is the most difficult part of this, for now. I've felt numb all day, and guilty about it. The gaps in our friendship helps account for that, but also the not knowing what to feel because of not knowing what has happened. No news is no news. And yet even the possibility makes scenes from thirty-five years ago come alive.

Perhaps our reaction to a death, or the possibility of a death, parallels the experience of death itself, a kind of mental editing of the important, so that finally one can get it right one time, at least, and quickly. I hope David has time to worry about that; I hope a hospital has him and simply doesn't know his name. If not, I hope he has had the perfect conversation with himself, just once. And, perhaps, with One other...

Postscript, 1/15: David survived the earthquake. To paraphrase Mark Twain, fears of his death were somewhat, if understandably, exaggerated.