The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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Your fifteenth anniversary issue with the amazing picture on the front — “nowhere but The Sun,” I thought on first sight — inspires me to offer congratulations and some notes of gratitude. As I communicate with an increasing number of editors, both mainstream and backwater, my estimation of The Sun rises steadily. In the realm of integrity and perseverance, you just about stand alone; and one of the few truly encouraging developments of modern civilization is that your circulation has recently been on the rise. It suggests that there really is an “audience” for wisdom out there, and you know that I mean wisdom as something practical and attainable, though definitely not purchasable.
I also know and appreciate that I can send you a feature interview with all the depth and width I want to give it and you won’t screw it up with a stupid headline or slanted re-writing. Let me tell you — this is rare!
Thanks for your piece, “Graduation” [Issue 155]. A decade ago, I lived for two years with a woman in her last year of medical school and first year of internship. We were going to be married. We never made it. It’s hard to say who was more absent from our relationship, the doctor on call or the sad, self-medicating manchild waiting for the world to recognize his epic stature, unable to acknowledge a feeling as pedestrian as loneliness. It is easy to say who saw things clearly, though: she left.
Your piece opened a few emotional files, I’ll tell you. One paragraph in particular is masterful: “My loneliness was like a letter I carried with me, and glanced at nervously, and folded and unfolded, but never read; a letter I gave instead to every woman who ever loved me, as if this clue to my longing were addressed to her, as if I didn’t recognize, in the rise and fall of the writing, my own boyish hand.” I’ve copied it out in letters to friends and onto a 3 x 5 card tacked to the corkboard over my desk. Thanks. We boys determined to grow up before we are entirely hoary of mien, whose faith, like it or not, must rest on the sometimes shaky assumption, “Better late than never,” need such focused and shared memories of our sullen shortcomings.
By way of personal introduction: I am a writer and teacher and husband and father of two. These days my work in the trenches is with teens recovering from addiction. My teaching and writing have become more and more centered on the difficult bonds between fathers and sons. I’m groping toward some synthesis of the themes that have emerged in my life, and trust they will be useful to someone else somewhere. At the heart of patriarchy, I believe, is a terrible loss turned to rage, which gives rise to sexual aggression, militarism, and addictive illness.
I found, by the way, much to object to in Jack Underhill’s essay, “On the Defense of Habits” [Issue 155]. You describe it as “provocative.” It provoked me to several questions. Is it possible for someone not recovering from addiction to address the devastating spiritual effects of addiction without sounding sanctimonious, abstracted, aloof, and bubble-blowing? Agh, it made me angry, that’s what it did. “Colds are almost a worse habit than cocaine,” indeed! It is insensitive at best to use the desperate life and death struggle of addicted people as one more bead on the string of a specious argument; at worst, it suggests that if only addicts would learn to accept love, they would be healed, presto, once and for all. On what planet does this miracle take place? I object vehemently, as a recovering addict and as one who works with young addicts, to such it’s-all-in-your-head nonsense. Another version of “Just say no.” I grant Underhill his provocativeness, and he says some interesting things about the dynamics of addiction almost despite himself, but he isn’t talking about alcoholism or addictive illness; he’s talking about habits. By not making the distinction, for whatever reason, he sets up a straw man — actually, a series of them — and proceeds to knock them down easily, glibly.
It occurs to me that the converse of write about what you know is also true. You have to have walked it before you can talk it.
I hadn’t meant to be so splenetic. But amen.
Thanks for The Sun.
Susan Griffin’s main purpose in “Ideologies of Madness” [Issue 157] is apparently to explore how the dualism of self and other results in a civilization capable of nuclear holocaust. On the whole she presents a strongly developed thesis; but her argument is flawed by some historical and cultural inaccuracies.
She holds the “church” (which one?) responsible for the dualism of matter and spirit: “Matter — or body and earth — was the corrupt, degraded region, belonging to the Devil. Spirit — or the realm of pure intellect and heavenly influence — belonged to God, and was won only at the expense of flesh.”
The notion that matter belonged to the Devil was current in the Middle Ages among the Albigensians of southern France. It was condemned as a heresy by the Catholic Church, and revived in a different form by Calvin during the Protestant Reformation. St. Augustine in The City of God argued that matter, although subject to change, reflects the perfection of God in the beauty of its design. He further argued that the universe is a continuum, that all created objects exist in a hierarchy of good, and that evil is simply nonexistence, or the turning away from the source of all good.
We turn away from this source because of the “dualism” that Susan Griffin identifies as a species of madness — the division of “self” and “other,” which Augustine called “pride.” Further, God has never been an exclusionary “being” in orthodox Catholic teaching, but rather the source of all being — the circle whose circumference is nowhere and whose center is everywhere.
Not to appreciate the details of this profundity in Augustine, and in “church” thinking generally, is to ignore the real power and vitality of the Christian tradition, and its capacity for renewing itself in times of crisis by returning to the radical — and nondual — experience of contemplation.
Our civilization is not entirely mad, just as all pornography is not uniformly violent, demeaning to women, or fearful of sexual experience. Insanity and wisdom emerge together. Griffin recognizes this truth in her description of the two selves, “one acknowledged and one hidden,” but I wonder if, in seeking to legitimize the notion of a “hidden” self, she does not fall into the very dualism that she cautions us against.
Recently, I subscribed to several magazines to see what I was missing, and the answer came back loud and clear: not much. I look at the pictures, turn down page corners of articles I think I ought to want to read, and let them pile up. Some day. . . .
So here comes The Sun, and no sooner do I open it than I know I must read all of it — at once — and I do, almost. (I fall asleep and neglect “Salvaging the Future” [Issue 158], which I can still look forward to.) I don’t know what to say except the Quaker expression, “It speaks to my condition.”
In middle age I thought I was a peninsula turning into an island. Now in old age, I think of myself as having become that island, but available in friendship to those who choose to visit my shores. Now I look forward to future issues of The Sun as a monthly excursion boat landing a cargo of ideas, dreams, and surprises.