Monday, March 31, 2014

Transcentental Etude

Liszt - passage from Transcendental Etude # 1

In an SF novel by Joe Haldeman (Worlds), there is a scene where the protagonist is describing other participants in a musical performance she is participating in.  In particular she is noticing two of the other musicians, one who is technically proficient and skilled, if a little distant, while the other, also proficient, appears to be continually in amazement of the sounds coming from the instrument, as if unwilling to credit other than their own skill at the music produced, that the instrument itself is somehow possessed by will and responsible for the wonderful sounds created.

These character observations really have no further relevance to the story, and I can only imagine that this awareness of transcendency was something he had seen, and felt compelled to get the experience down on paper. By its nature, transcendental experiences are those that surpass and rise above our mundane expectations and experiences, hopefully transforming us in the wake of their passage.

I bring this up because of an insight I recently had during a contemplative retreat. This retreat was aimed at helping the participants make more of a connection between their interior spiritual life and the Christian liturgy (in the instant example, it was aimed at the Episcopal liturgy).

One of the facets of that connection is to make the conscious effort to listen to, and reflect on, what is contained in that liturgy.  Indeed when you reflect upon the liturgy, and “deconstruct” it, without actually being that rigorously analytical, we can open up our perceptions to allow the transcendency of the mystical to be recognized, and view what one subjectively experiences as “listening with love,” “delight,” “amazement” or simple wonder, as that musician Haldeman described in his novel's scene. For most of us, this feeling of experiential wonder is fleeting and unpredictable, except that, when we consciously seek for that feeling of wonder it is certain to elude us.

One of these transcendentally transformative experiences for Christians can be the simple act of contemplation and acceptance of the Eucharist. Being human, our inner life is usually full, not of thoughts of the sublime, but of the ordinary, are our shoes at the proper state of shiny? Look at the state of that altar cloth! The ability to be as empty of preconception, and as open to acceptance of Christ's presence is rare indeed, and the more we strive for that state the more it will elude us, such that when it does come, it is a surprise that can overwhelm and frighten. Thought of finding the sublime in our daily, mundane, life is supremely attractive to us.

That experience is so much more beauteous, so much more of a wonder beyond hope or expectations, when achieved, and so much, much more terrible when lost, we have only a fleeting glimpse of memory as treasure, either to hoard to ourselves or to share.

The achievement of that promise may be something that is as simple as accepting the existence of the reality of the mysticism and mystery in our faith, or it may be forever beyond our grasp.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Does Extreme Income Inequality engender "Envy?"

Income inequality, real v perceived
Recently an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times caught my eye.

It was titled "The Downside of Inciting Envy," and was penned by one Arthur C Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute.  His thesis is that this current recession and economic straits are engendering "envy" of those who are living at the top of the heap.

He takes a quote from a 2002 interview with the Irish singer Bono, to the effect that, in Ireland, the mythical "man on the street" would view someone in a mansion, and would fantasize about "getting" that person, while in the U.S. the attitude would be to aspire to that wealth, with the expectation of being able to achieve it.  On this quote, and some really spurious reasoning, Brooks spins a tale of how our perceptions of an inequality and disparity of opportunity have somehow been exploited to generate a feeling of envy to the poor, misunderstood wealthy, and that the envy is bad for our health.

Sir, it is not "bitterness" or "envy," but simple outrage.

The outrage stems from being forced to participate in a society that:
- insists in the belief that being monetarially impoverished is some moral failing;
- one where people will, if pressed, say that "yes, if someone can't pay for their own medical care, we as a society should let them sicken and die;"
- one where multi-billion dollar companies pay no taxes, and thus nothing towards maintaining the society, and accuse workers laid off when jobs are shifted overseas as "freeloaders" if they collect unemployment compensation;
- one where, since the demise of traditional pension plans, retirement funds are tied up in a gambling den called "the stock market" that the individual worker must navigate as a minnow in a sea of sharks;
- where, at state unemployment orientations, the emphasis is not on resume prep to sell skills or education, but in "networking," thus demonstrating that "it's not what you know but who you know"
- knowledge that your children and grandchildren will never be able to afford a top-tier college

- knowledge that the chance for opportunity and upwards mobility has been put out of reach for almost everybody in the poorer sectors of our economy and is rapidly becoming out of reach for the middle class
- knowledge that today Americans in  their 30s and 40s and 50 are worse off than their parents, and the prospect for their children will be even worse

Again I say, sir, that is what is driving the outrage, not envy.