Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Welcome Chronicle Readers!

Welcome to readers from the Chronicle of Higher Education. As promised at the conclusion of the second half of my series on teaching and human memory, I have listed below a set of books and articles in this area recommended to me by Dr. Michelle Miller, a cognitive psychologist from Northern Arizona University. I have given the full citation for the source followed by a brief note from Michelle, which follows the “MM” at the end of the citation.

Now that you’re here, feel free to poke around this website, which I tend to use as a place to try out ideas that eventually make their way into articles and book projects. For a while this site was exclusively focused on matters of religion and spirituality, while I was working on a project in that area. As I continue to work on my new book about cheating in higher education, you will likely find bits and pieces of that project, or early versions of ideas, making their way onto the site.

If you’d like to contact me for any reason, feel free to do so through the address listed at the bottom of the Chronicle article; just put my name in the subject line and it will get to me. You can also visit this very outdated faculty website at Assumption College to find my regular e-mail. I’m always happy to hear from readers and from fellow faculty!


Chabris, Christopher & and Daniel Simons, The Invisible Gorilla, and Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us (Crown, 2010). MM: “Accessible writing and top-notch research.”

Schacter, Daniel L. The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers (Mariner, 2002). MM: From an author who has made “tremendous contributions to the field.”

Bransford, John et al. How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School (National Academies, 2000). MM: “A classic, well-grounded in research; effectively ties together mind, learning, and brain.”


Daniel, D., & Poole, D. (2009) Learning for life: An ecological approach to pedagogical research. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 4, 91-96. MM: “An engaging commentary on the dangers of construing instructional design as solely a matter of memory. A good counterpoint to what I and other memory researchers tend to emphasize when discussing teaching and learning.”

Jonides, John, Richard L. Lewis, Derek Evan Nee, Cindy A. Lustig, Marc G. Berman, and Katherine Sledge Moore. (2008) The mind and brain of short-term memory. Annual Review of Psychology 59: 193-224. MM: “A great wrap-up of what's known about the neural basis for short-term memory.

Nairne, James S., and Josefa N. S. Pandeirada. (2010) "Adaptive memory: ancestral priorities and the mnemonic value of survival processing. Cognitive Psychology 61: 1-22. MM: “This one discusses the ‘adaptive memory’ concept and its basis in Nairne's research findings.”

McDaniel, Mark A., Henry L., III Roediger, and Kathleen B. McDermott. (2007) Generalizing test-enhanced learning from the laboratory to the classroom. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review 14: 200-206. MM: “Good review of the testing effect, something I think is one of the most useful concepts to come out of applied memory research.”

Karpicke, Jeffrey D., and Henry L., III Roediger. (2008) The critical importance of retrieval for learning. Science 319: 966-968. MM: “Another on the testing effect. Any of Karpicke's articles are a good source for material on this—he does great work.”

Karpicke, J., Butler, A., & Roediger, R. (2009) Metacognitive strategies in student learning: Do students practice retrieval when they study on their own? Memory 17: 471-479. MM: “Merely being aware of good study practices doesn't necessarily translate into using those practices.

Pashler, Harold, Mark McDaniel, Doug Rohrer, and Robert Bjork. (2008) Learning styles: concepts and evidence." Psychological Science in the Public Interest 9: 105-119. MM: “Takes down the perceptual learning styles notion, hopefully for good.”

Dickey, M.D. (2005) Engaging by design: How engagement strategies in popular computer and video games can inform instructional design. Educational Technology Research and Development 53: 67-83. MM: “Kind of obscure and not terribly empirical, but I really like her concept of how game design and good instructional design overlap on some fundamental levels.”

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Giving to the Rich

A few months ago my father was visiting me in Worcester, and left behind a copy of America Magazine when he flew back home. I picked up the magazine, read it through, and almost immediately got online and purchased a subscription. This was a magazine for Catholics like me--folks who love Catholic faith and spirituality but feel an awful lot of anger and frustration with some of the people who are running the church these days. Many of the stories focused on issues of political justice and injustice, and they had a decidedly liberal bent--one which fits well with my own decidedly liberal bent.

So after subscribing, I set myself the next goal of trying to break into the magazine as a writer. I took a short essay that I had written for this blog over the summer, revised and expanded it, and sent it off to the editors. I have been writing long enough to know that it often takes many rejected submissions to break into a new market. Much to my joy and surprise, then, I received an e-mail a few weeks later letting me know that they had accepted the essay.

It came out in this week's issue, and I am as pleased as anything to see it there. My only gripe is that they changed the original title, "Giving to the Rich," to "Night Shift," which I don't like as much. But it's a small gripe.

As so often happens in writing, one thing led to another, and in the coming months I'll have two book reviews appearing in America as well. In the meantime, click on the title above and enjoy the essay!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Pope and Harry Potter

Last spring, over plates of sausages at a pub in Montreal, my older brother Tony and I outlined an essay about the relationship between fantasy literature and religious faith in America today. We began with a discussion of the Pope's comments on Harry Potter from a few years ago, and then backtracked to an obscure Scottish fantasy writer from a few hundred years ago, before moving forward again to more contemporary devils and vampires.

In early October the essay that we mapped out in Montreal was published in Notre Dame Magazine. We'd love to hear your comments on it, so please click on the title of this blog post, read the essay, and let us know what you think!

Thursday, October 6, 2011


For the second post in a row, I am deviating from what has been the usual subject matter of this blog to share some exciting career news.

Back in the spring of this year, I decided to apply for the Fulbright Specialist Program. Unlike a traditional Fulbright award, for which you propose a research project to be completed in another country, the Specialist Program appoints you to a roster of experts in various fields who are then paired up with overseas institutions for two-to-six week mini-grants. Instead of working on a project of your own, you are there to help the requesting country/institution with a local problem or project.

Since English literature is not one of the areas in which you can apply for the Specialists Program, and since most of my published work has been in the area of teaching and learning in higher education, I applied as an expert in higher education teaching, learning, and administration. My application specified that I could work with new faculty or graduate students on developing their teaching skills, on helping graduate students apply for jobs at American universities, on helping establish or develop Honors Programs, or on working on cheating or academic integrity issues.

Last week I received the happy news that my application was accepted, and that I will be on the Fulbright Specialist roster for the next five years. This program fits much more easily into my life than a traditional Fulbright Program, which generally requires a semester or full year abroad. If all of my children were smaller, I might have been able to manage the logistics of a semester abroad with my family, but with the age range now from fifteen down to seven, covering high school down to second grade, I didn't think we could pull it off.

Hopefully sometime soon I'll get my next big news from Fulbright, letting me know that they have a match for me somewhere in the world.

If any readers of this post have been a part of the Specialist Program, I'd love to hear how your experience was—so by all means please share below, and let me know what to expect!

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Book News

So I'm using today's blog to announce that I have signed a deal with Harvard University Press to write a new book about cheating in higher education. The book manuscript is due in exactly one year (September 2012), and should be out then the following year (so spring or fall of 2013).

This was a first for me, in that my editor at the Press actually wrote to me and asked me whether I would be interested in writing on this subject. My first response was a pretty lukewarm one: although I had written a chapter about cheating for On Course, and done a Chronicle column or two about it as well, I had not done any kind of extensive research in this area.

So after we had a few exchanges about the topic, I agreed to think about it. I went to the library and checked out a few books on cheating in higher education, and then I took off with my family for a ten-day vacation. By the time we returned, I had discovered that the topic held much more interest for me than I had first anticipated. That following week I had my first-ever lunch with an editor, and we hashed out the main ideas of the book over seafood at the Sole Proprietor.

I put together the full proposal that the Press needed in order to give me a contract, sent it off and then left for a Lang family reunion in Ohio. While I was sitting in the Cleveland Indians stadium, watching my first-ever no-hitter, the editorial board met and agreed to give me a contract.

So now I am deeply embedded in books, articles, and interviews about cheating in higher education. I'm finding that my interest in the topic continues to grow, as I realize that the methods we have at our disposal for discouraging cheating are--for the most part--the very same methods that I believe make for the best teaching and learning practices at the college level. So while the focus of the book will remain on how faculty and administrators can work together to reduce cheating in higher education, the topic will still allow me to continue to explore the same overall subject matter that I have written about in On Course and for the past several years now in The Chronicle of Higher Education--how do we best help our students learn?

Shortly after I signed the contract, a couple of speaking invitations came in for the fall semester. For both events, I will be presenting the research and initial thinking I have been doing on this subject, and engaging in conversation with faculty at two very different institutions about academic integrity. I hope, over the next year, to supplement my conventional research by speaking with faculty and administrators at a wide variety of institutions, and hearing perspectives from a range of people and constituencies.

In the next blog I will describe my favorite article I have read on cheating thus far--"'Princess Alice is Watching You': Children's Belief in an Invisible Person Inhibits Cheating"--and how it nicely ties together the normal subject matter of this blog (religion and spirituality) and this new research I have been doing on cheating in higher education.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Left to Tell: A Faith Story

This past May the Commencement speaker at Assumption College was a Rwandan woman named Immaculee Ilibagiza, the author of Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust (Hay House, 2006). I missed the Commencement exercises, and now—having just finished her book—am kicking myself for having done so. This book has been one of the most powerful and interesting works of spirituality that I have read during the past year that I have been working on this blog.

The first aspect of this book that struck me was the reminder it provided of an astonishing historical fact: a genocide that took a million lives took place during my adult lifetime. When we think about genocides, we think about the Nazis, and—as fascinated as we still seem to be with the Holocaust—it seems historically remote to those of my generation and younger. But the Rwandan genocide took place during the 1990’s, just after I had graduated from college. It’s much harder to wipe away the notion that such horrible events are products of the distant past when you can link them to periods in your own life.

Ilibagiza was from a Tutsi family, the ethnic nationality that was marked for extermination by the majority Hutus in Rwanda during the 1990’s. Her family, like all of the families in her neighborhood and across Rwanda, was attacked by machete-wielding Hutus, many of them former neighbors and friends, when the genocide began. Her father was shot in the street; her mother and brother chopped to death with machetes; another brother machine-gunned down in a mass killing.

Ilibagiza sought refuge in the home of a Hutu pastor who took pity on her and seven other Tutsi women. He sheltered them in his home for three months—all eight women spent those three months locked away in a bathroom that was three feet wide and four feet long. You read that correctly. They had to learn to stand, sit, and sleep on top of one another for three months in that tiny space. As the weeks and months went by, though, Ilibagiza explains, the space got larger and larger: the scraps of food that the pastor was able to save for them were barely enough to keep them alive, and they all grew increasingly emaciated.

I will leave the story of her liberation from confinement, and eventual reunion with her one surviving brother, for you to read. But those events don’t represent the climax of the book. That comes when she finally returns to her village—where she finds the ruined shell of her family home, and gives a proper burial to what remains of the corpses of her family members—and confronts the Hutu man who led the killing mob against her family. An angry and sympathetic warder drags him from his jail cell, and holds him up before her, so that Ilibagiza can do to him what she will.

It is an incredible and surprising moment, and one which affirms the power of the religious faith that sustains her through her long ordeal.

If you are looking for reasons to believe, you won’t find any stronger ones than you will in Left to Tell.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Loaves, Fishes, and Houses

Last Sunday I found myself in a Catholic church in my old hometown, attending services with my father and brother and his family. The gospel reading for that day was the story of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes; the homily following the gospel was delivered in a long and rambling monotone that had many dozens of people in the pews around me, including my Dad, nodding off on a regular basis.

Because I talk to people for a living, I’m usually able to stay awake even through the most boring of lectures by mentally stepping back and imagining what advice I would give the speaker on improving his or her speaking skills. In the final minutes of his sermon, though, the priest got around to offering an insight into the gospel that I thought was really excellent, and that I wanted to share on this blog.

Before I make his point, let me reproduce here the gospel in question (Matthew 14: 13-21) in order to jog your memory of the story.

“On hearing about the death of John the Baptist, Jesus set out secretly by boat for a secluded place. But the people heard of it, and they followed him on foot from their towns. When Jesus went ashore, he saw the crowd gathered there and he had compassion on them. And he healed their sick.
Late in the afternoon, his disciples came to him and said, ‘We are in a lonely place and it is now late. You should send these people away, so they can go to the villages and buy something for themselves to eat.’
But Jesus replied, ‘They do not need to go away; you give them something to eat.’ They answered, ‘We have nothing here but five loaves and two fishes.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Bring them here to me.’
Then he made everyone sit down on the grass. He took the five loaves and the two fishes, raised his eyes to heaven, pronounced the blessing, broke the loaves and handed them to the disciples to distribute to the people. And they all ate, and everyone had enough; then the disciples gathered up the leftovers, filling twelve baskets. About five thousand men had eaten there besides women and children.”

In the closing minutes of his homily, the priest drew attention to a small detail in this story: Jesus performed the miracle, but it was the disciples—reluctant though they may have been—who provided the loaves and fishes, the raw materials with which Jesus performed that miracle. Jesus did not produce that bountiful harvest from nothing; he took the meager donation that his apostles made and multiplied it many times over.

The priest then described the feeling that I’m sure many of us have when we are deciding whether we should donate a few dollars to a charity, or volunteer for an hour or two, or make some small gesture of kindness: what good could such a miniscule gesture make in the face of such great need? Could my five dollar donation to a cancer fund really make any difference? Does the hour I spend sorting food at a donation center make the tiniest dent in the problem of world hunger?

The story of the loaves and fishes, the priest suggested, teaches us that while we may not be capable of working miracles with our five dollar donation, God might be. We should do what we can to provide the raw materials; maybe they will end up as only the tiniest drop in the bucket . . . but maybe they will provide the raw material that God turns into something miraculous.

With all of that in mind, I want to finish by extending my love and congratulations to Anne and Katie Lang, who are spending the week working on houses for Habitat for Humanity in Portland, Maine. I’m sure they will have their moments, looking at the small part they will play in building a house, when they wonder whether it’s worth the trouble.

I hope, in those minutes, they will remember the story of the loaves and fishes, and take comfort from the possibility that they may yet be providing the raw materials for something miraculous.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

On Being a Hypocrite

This past week I had an essay published in the Worcester Telegram and Gazette on a new book by David Gessner entitled My Green Manifesto. You can see the essay in the newspaper by clicking the title of this post. I have pasted it in below, though, because I want to add a thought or two to the essay in order to link it to the subject matter of this blog.


Protect Your Urban Wilderness

This morning I took a walk up Newton Hill, a wooded isle in the urban sea of Worcester's West Side. As I crossed the perimeter of the hill's base, and made my way up the first path, my feet crunched over broken glass. Just off the trail, a few feet into the woods, I spotted a pile of garbage, replete with beer bottles and fast-food containers and, oddly, a diaper.

I kept moving. As I came to a spot where two paths crossed, I ran into a young man and woman wearing athletic clothes, and holding discs. They were playing the disc golf course that has been set up on the hill with the help of a local advocacy organization, the Friends of Newton Hill. We exchanged a friendly greeting, and I moved my feet further up the hill as they stepped onto the next tee.

Finally I got to the top, a cleanly mowed meadow. At the hill's summit I could see a slab of concrete, and a large metal pole, decorated with graffiti. I made my way over and sat down on the slab, carefully watching my seat and feet to avoid another rash of broken glass.

I pulled out my binoculars, and found what I was looking for: blue jays. I'm not much of a bird watcher, but I've come to enjoy sitting up here and watching these beautifully colored birds. I can identify at least three separate jays on the hill, and like to watch them flit from tree to field, sometimes hanging around their home base and sometimes circling around in the sky above me.

I see other birds, too, but I'm too new at bird-watching to be able to know what they are. As usual, I've forgotten my bird identification book, so I'm content to sit here in solitude and enjoy the peace and quiet, watching the jays. The trees and wildflowers wave in the wind, and clouds are scooting by overhead. An elderly couple comes into view off the path, walking their two dogs and giving me a friendly wave.

This little glimpse of nature in my day, watching birds I know little about amidst the broken glass and sounds of the city below me, probably won't sound very enticing to your typical nature lover, or environmental activist. But it's precisely the kind of natural experience that we need more of, according to Worcester native David Gessner, author of a new book titled "My Green Manifesto."

Mr. Gessner's book describes a canoe trip he took down the Charles River - with its famously elegized "Dirty Water" - with Dan Driscoll, a state Department of Conservation and Recreation employee who has made environmental planning along the Charles his life's work.

The pair encounter nature on the Charles just as I do on Newton Hill, as they wind their way between banks dotted by trophy homes and parking lots. Amid the occasional swirl of garbage, they catch sight of turtles and hawks, herons and ospreys, and more trees and plant life than I can remember.

Mr. Gessner comes away from the trip with two arguments, both made in his book, and both of which I think are worth the consideration of those of us living in Worcester's urban habitat.

First, he challenges us to be hypocrites.

Don't throw up your hands in despair at the prospect of global warming, he says; don't worry about it if you've switched all your light bulbs to fluorescents, but you still like a long hot shower. In the face of dire predictions about the environment, we may be tempted to shut down and give up. Do what you can, Gessner says; better make some commitment than none at all.

His second argument offers a more substantial challenge to us. He offers it, once again, in the face of our potential despair at the magnitude of the problems around us: rising sea levels, polluted skies and water, a doomed Earth.

His prescription is simple: Find a natural place in your own backyard (or neighborhood, or city); fall in love with it; be willing to fight for it.

Following that prescription made Dan Driscoll's fight for the Charles River a successful one. It has also helped animate the Friends of Newton Hill, who have done much good work in cleaning up this space where I felt myself a little closer to nature this morning.

And if enough of us learn to put aside our despair, and instead take up the fight for some local space that we learn to love, it may just help us - in spite of everything - save the world.


So that's the essay as it appeared. Just a few final words on hypocrisy, which may be one of the worst things you can call someone in Christian circles.

But I think Gessner's point may be applicable here as well, especially with reference to so many people I know who have fallen away from religious practice, or from the religion of their childhood. They felt like they could no longer embrace that religion wholeheartedly, or accept all of its tenets, or live up to its principles. So out goes the baby and the bathwater.

It might not be the worst thing, though, to allow ourselves a little hypocrisy here as well. Even if you find yourself troubled by one thing or another, or don't feel connected to certain aspects of a religion, you may still find others which enrich your life, and which you feel comfortable practicing.

If that's the case for you, perhaps being a hypocrite may not be such a bad idea after all.

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Heart of Monadnock

A few weeks ago I joined some teacher friends and their class of high school students on a climb up Mount Monadnock in Jaffrey, New Hampshire.

I had attempted to climb Monadnock once before, but on that day a rainstorm blew in as we were preparing for the final push to the top, and so we turned back without reaching the summit. I was determined to succeed in my second attempt at the mountain, which tops out at 3,165 feet, and is either the most or second-most climbed mountain in the world, depending upon whose press you are reading (its competitor is Japan's Mount Fuji).

We reached the state park that surrounds the mountain and started down the trail at around 9:30 am. Although rain was predicted later that day—it would turn out to be the day when the tornadoes landed here in central Massachusetts—the morning was beautiful, with clear skies and warm temperatures.

The presence on the trails of children and teenagers and people dressed in regular workout clothes can make you forget that, even at its modest height and moderately difficult climbing terrain, Monadnock is a mountain. If you take only occasional short stops, and move along at a good clip, you can reach the top in around two hours—but those are two very hard hours. Most of the time you are either walking up steep trail or climbing, hand-over-foot, up rocky formations. I exercise four or five days a week, and consider myself to be in pretty good shape, but I still spent a lot of the climb with my heart pumping hard and my leg muscles burning.

We made it to the top around 11:30, right on schedule, and had a half-hour up there to savor the views while we ate the lunches we had brought. I had my picture snapped on the summit, and took a few of the kids up there as well.

The way down, which took around an hour, proved no less difficult than the way up. Trying to move carefully down the steep trail on jellied legs, especially when the rocks are damp, necessitated plenty of short rests, and led to a few near-slips for me and the kids.

At the bottom of the mountain, in the small store run by the state park rangers, I surveyed the selection of books about Monadnock. Since I have been reading and writing so much about religion and spirituality these days, naturally my eye was drawn to a short little book called The Heart of Monadnock, which had a picture on the cover of an angel superimposed over the mountain. I read on the back that it was by an early feminist, children's author, and mountain climber, Elizabeth Weston Timlow, and that it described the “spiritual transformation she experienced while hiking the trails” of the mountain.

That's for me, I thought. I took it home and sat on my front porch later that afternoon, reading about the mountain I had just climbed.

I wish I could recommend that everyone run out and read this strange little book, but I probably shouldn't. The story takes the form of a meandering description of the travels of an unnamed protagonist—referred to as the Mountain Lover—as he spends day after day climbing and traversing the many paths that crisscross the mountain. The vast majority of the book consists of poetic descriptions of the flora and fauna he encounters, of the views he witnesses, and of the physical and emotional sensations he experiences. They are certainly well-written descriptions . . . but there are just too many of them. I had to push myself to get through the entire thing, which is less than two hundred small pages long.

At the heart of the book, though, comes a scene which imparts its main message—and that message seemed to me one worth sharing.

The Mountain Lover comes to a point at which he has lost the trail, and can't figure out where to go next. He hears a voice, which seems to come from the mountain, that reminds him of a Latin quotation he had learned long ago: “Perge, qua via ducat.” Rough translation: “Go on, as the way will lead.” Still unsure of where to place his feet next, the Mountain Lover follows an instinct and starts moving. Within a few steps he recognizes a familiar landmark and finds his way back to the trail he had lost.

Weston opens the next chapter, after this scene, by philosophizing about his experience: “he had taken confidently that next step in life although he had seen nothing beyond. But when he had taken it, the next lay open to his view, and then the next. Perhaps for some distance only one visible at a time, although he so longed to see the whole way. It needed faith. It was not always easy to go on, just feeling the way with his feet . . . But the necessary thing was to go on—go on.”

“Have the main goal clearly in one's vision,” she concludes. “The great definite end. Then keep an unprejudiced attitude towards the route itself. Sometimes it is just a question of what Carlyle wrote: 'Do the duty that lies nearest thee; the next will already have become clearer.'”

It was easy enough to see how and why this message might come from a lover of mountain climbing. The four hours we spent on the mountain that day consisted of three and a half hours of hard slogging, and thirty minutes of spectacular views at the summit. To speak or think of mountain climbing evokes images of basking in the views of the summit; to actually climb a mountain mostly means walking up steep paths, scrabbling over rocks, sweating, grunting, watching your footing, and taking it one step at a time. Every once in a while you get a glimpse of the scenery through the trees—but only every once in a while.

And although she did not put in exactly these terms, I'm sure Weston meant to convey—and if she didn't, I mean to—that maintaining a spiritual life can feel like much the same kind of experience.

Although we might associate ideas about faith and spirituality with experiences of clarity and insight, with joy and peace, with communing with God and feeling the love of all creatures great and small, the daily experience of it can feel a lot more like slogging up the mountain. You will get your moments of spiritual transformation and inner peace, of feeling a sense of oneness with the universe, etc.--but don't expect them if you are not committed to climbing the mountain first. The daily and weekly acts of attending church services, praying, volunteering, donating to charity, forgiving those who annoy you, and coming down on the right side of the small ethical dilemmas we face every day—those acts are the real work of living with faith and spirituality.

Sometimes that work can be enjoyable and satisfying, in the way that exercise can be enjoyable and satisfying. But sometimes you just feel like sitting on the couch and forgetting about it.

The next time I feel that impulse, and am tempted to give up, I'll try to remember Weston's Mountain Lover.

One more step forward.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Homelessness and Hospitality

I write this from the overnight shift with the homeless families who are staying at Blessed Sacrament Catholic church this week as a part of the good work done by the Worcester Interfaith Hospitality Network (IHN). I’m missing the sixth game of the NHL playoffs, since there’s no TV here; fortunately, I’m not a hockey fan, so it’s not much of a loss for me.

The IHN has taken an innovative approach to helping battle homelessness; it houses a small number of homeless families each week or two at a new church, rotating them through its network of committed parishes and their volunteer members. Although I am sure it must be hard on the homeless families who have to pack and move to a new parish home at the end of each week or two, they are at least always assured of warm beds, food, and transportation to and from their jobs or schools every day. The Interfaith Hospitality Network, which has branches in many US cities, has been coordinating this good work in Worcester since 1997.

I always volunteer for an overnight shift when the families are staying at Blessed Sacrament. Although it’s not much fun sleeping on a cot in a cold function room, I like being here in the silence of the night, where I can think and write or watch a movie on my laptop and still know that I am doing my little share of good in the world. And when I walk out of here at 7:00 am in the morning, after these poor families have been picked up and taken to their daytime destinations, I spend the next week or two filled with boundless gratitude for every small blessing in my life.

My visit here tonight dovetails quite nicely with the book I finished reading last week: Dorothy Day’s Loaves and Fishes: The Inspiring Story of the Catholic Worker Movement. Along with her co-worker Peter Maurin, Day set out in the early half of the 20th century to form a community that would strive to achieve three goals: “founding a newspaper for clarification of thought, starting houses of hospitality, and organizing farming communes.” Loaves and Fishes chronicles their successes and failures over the next several dozen years, as they worked to put into practice the radical ideas of Christ about helping the poor. The book is beautifully written and offers one inspirational story after another, though Day does not hesitate to describe the many setbacks and problems they encounter along the way.

I had known a little about Day and her work before I read the book, and always assumed that she would have argued for a liberal political agenda to match her life of voluntary poverty and servitude. I was surprised, then, to see that in some ways Day offers arguments that diverge quite sharply from liberal convictions about the role of the government in helping the poor.

“It seems to me that in the future the family—the ideal family—will always try to care for one more,” she writes. “If every family that professed to follow Scriptural teaching whether Jew, Protestant, or Catholic, were to do this, there would be no need for huge institutions, houses of dead storage where human beings waste away in loneliness and despair. Responsibility must return to the parish with a hospice and a center for mutual aid, to the group, to the family, to the individual.”

Day and Maurin both constantly emphasize the importance of personal responsibility, and reject wholeheartedly the notion that the government should help the poor and the homeless. That, Day argues, is the responsibility of each one of us.

One of the other points that really struck me was made by Day’s co-worker Peter Maurin.

“We need houses of hospitality,” he said, “to give to the rich the opportunity to serve the poor.”

My first thought, when I read that sentence, was of the Interfaith Hospitality Network, and the way in which they provide opportunities for so many parishes in Worcester, and so many of the members of those parishes, to serve the poor. The good work they do for these homeless families constitutes only a small part of the whole; the real service they may provide to the community is the opportunity for so many of us who are rich in blessings various kinds—money, jobs, health, families—to help those who are less fortunate.

If you are interested in learning more about the Interfaith Hospitality Network, or you wish to donate or to see if your parish helps host families, click here for more information. If you are interested in learning more about the presence of Dorothy Day's Catholic Worker movement here in Worcester, you can read about one of their local houses here.

Finally, in the spirit of offering people one more opportunity to help the poor, Matt Robert and I will be performing a series of musical shows this summer at Nu Café and donating all tips that we receive from the audience to the Interfaith Hospitality Network. You can learn more details about that initiative here.

The Director of the IHN will be joining us and saying a few words on June 23rd, so come out and throw a few bucks in the jar—and enjoy the music while you’re at it!

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

On Symbolic Skunks and Harold Camping's Rapture

Last summer I sat down in my backyard one evening to reflect on my life. For reasons that I can't really remember right now, I was feeling unhappy about living in Worcester, and wondering whether I should go on the job market and find my family a new place to live. Before I began to reflect on the topic, I did something I haven't done in a long time. I asked God to send me a sign.

I wanted some sort of divine finger pointing me to the direction I should take: stay or go?

I closed my eyes and meditated for a while, until I heard a rustling noise right near the bench I was sitting on. I opened my eyes and saw that a skunk was about three feet away from me, snuffling his snout through the grass and looking for grubs. I had competing impulses to jump up and run away and to continue sitting quietly and hope for the best. Since he was already so close to me without having taking any notice, I figured it best to sit tight and let him proceed on his way.

Which he did, walking directly under the bench I was sitting on and meandering his way across the yard and eventually back behind the garage. I felt a small thrill to have experienced such closeness to a wild animal in my own backyard, even if it was a pretty common and urban wild animal.

But immediately after he left, it occurred to me that such an unusual experience had to be the sign I was waiting for from God. But what did it mean?

I decided quickly that it meant I should stay. God sent me that strange encounter to remind me that wonderful and unusual encounters were available to me right here where I lived; I didn't need to go searching for excitement in my life elsewhere, when I could find it right here in my own backyard. The thrill I felt in my encounter with the wild was open to me always, if only I was willing to open my eyes and experience it.

Several weeks later, though, still feeling some dissatisfaction with Worcester, I realized that I had obviously misinterpreted the sign. While it may have been a wild animal, it was a particular wild animal: a skunk. God, with an impressive sense of humor, had sent me a very obvious message: Worcester stinks—get out as soon as possible.

It has been almost a year now since I met that brave little skunk, and I have no idea anymore what its appearance might have meant. I still can't shake the feeling that it meant something, though—nothing like it has happened to me before or since, and the fact that I asked for a sign just before he came to visit me gives me this inescapable feeling that he was sent for me. I just can't seem to settle on a definitive interpretation of the meaning of that skunk.

Which brings me to Harold Camping, whose prediction that the Rapture would occur on May 21st proved so spectacularly wrong, and who has responded to his error by acknowledging that he was wrong—and posing a definitive new date for the Rapture, on October 21st.

While I don't much believe that anything like a Rapture will take place whenever our time here in this universe has run its course, I don't have any problem with people like Harold Camping believing in such things, as long as it doesn't interfere with charitable and loving practice towards your fellow human beings. And I don't really even have a problem with people speculating about when the end of the world will take place—although, as many commentators on Camping have pointed out, Christ specifically says that nobody, except for God in heaven, knows when the end of the world will take place.

What strikes me as the real problem with Harold Camping, and the legions of others down through history who have made such predictions, is their certainty. There I think they go terribly wrong.

Most of the great ills in the world, it seems to me, are caused by people who have absolutely no doubts in the truth of their convictions. When you are fully convinced that you are right, it gives you the latitude to dismiss the views of others, to justify bad behavior on your part, and to browbeat everyone around you with your convictions. It impels you to make predictions about the end of the world and pronounce them on your radio show, inspiring millions of people to fear and hope that they will be in heaven at the end of some specific day. It leaves a lot of sad and disillusioned people, still standing here on earth, at the end of that day.

None of this means that people shouldn't have strong convictions—they should. But my strongest conviction is that you should always allow for the possibility that you are wrong. Maybe if you have a really strong conviction, you're ninety-percent convinced. But holding out that ten percent might make all the difference in the world in how you behave towards people who don't agree with you.

My experience with my smelly little friend served as a great reminder of all this for me. Whatever I believe he might have meant, or not meant, I should always hold out the possibility that my interpretation might be wrong. And so, of course, should Harold Camping and all his followers.

Maybe that's what the skunk was sent to teach me, after all.

Or maybe not.

Monday, May 16, 2011

On Hell

In my last post I was inspired by a recently published book to offer some reflections on heaven; in this post, I will return to a much older book to offer some reflections on hell. Somehow that seems appropriate.

Earlier this year, I struck up a correspondence with another academic whose work I admire. When our e-mail conversation turned to the subject of religion, he seemed very surprised to learn that I was a Catholic. A lifelong agnostic, he described himself as open to the possibility that God might exist, but he was quite skeptical, even dismissive, of just about every specific religious belief, doctrine, or practice that we discussed.

One sticking point that he kept returning to was the idea of hell. He kept nudging me on this point, reminding me that Catholics believe in hell. How on earth could you subscribe to a faith, he seemed to imply, that propagated such a ridiculous and manifestly unjust notion?

I did my best to explain to him that my recent year of spiritual exploration had convinced me that worrying about the afterlife was about as useless of a preoccupation as I could possibly imagine, even—and perhaps especially—for the religious.

Every deeply religious person that I have encountered and admired over the course of my explorations has been someone who focused their religious and spiritual practices on this world. Whether those spiritual practices drove them towards works of personal charity or political service, or gave them a sense of inner peace and contentment, these people exemplified for me the notion that spirituality should make a difference first and foremost in our lives here on earth.

And even if that were not the case, I added, to my skeptical correspondent, we could spend every minute of our lives in speculation about the existence and nature of heaven and hell and we'll never get any closer to knowing whether or not we're right.

Still, though, I did share with him the fact that the idea of hell was the source of my first disagreement with the religion of my childhood. At some point in high school I told my father that I found it hard to believe in a God who would create or allow the existence of hell. Always an open-minded and thoughtful person, my father invited a priest friend over for dinner, and encouraged me to share my disagreements with him.

I don't remember whether or not that conversation resolved my immediate doubts, but I do know it began a lifelong process of bouncing back and forth between faith and unbelief, and of embracing and rejecting religious faith at different points along the way. My recent travels in the spiritual world have brought me back to faith, but of course who knows what the future will bring?

Which brings me back to hell. A couple of weeks ago I was scanning my bookshelves for something to read, and my eye lit upon a very small, beat-up paperback called The Great Divorce, by C.S. Lewis. I have no recollection of either obtaining or reading this book. We had a bookstore in South Bend, IN, where I attended college, that featured extensive collections of books of philosophy and theology, and I'm guessing I probably picked it up there—but then stuck it on a shelf and never read it.

I pulled it down from my shelf and read through it in an afternoon. An imaginative work of theological fantasy, the book offers a fascinating view of hell—not a place of fire and torture, but a graying town full of normal people—and an equally fascinating view of the relationship between heaven and hell.

In Lewis's afterlife, a bus leaves from hell every so often and takes any interested residents of hell to the edge of heaven. There, inhabitants of heaven meet the bus travelers at the border and try to encourage hell's inhabitants to come join them in paradise. The residents of hell are free to enter heaven on the one condition that they have to leave behind the things that are keeping them from opening up to God's love—which of course happen to be the things they cherished the most in their earthly lives. Most of them refuse to leave those things behind, and eventually get on the bus back to hell.

The kinds of characters who refuse to enter heaven make for instructive reading: sensualists who refuse to give up the pleasures of the body; a theologian who prefers arguing about God to believing in God; an artist who will not enter paradise if it means no more painting; a writer who refuses to give up the small literary reputation he has earned in hell; a showily pious man who refuses to enter heaven when he sees someone there who was a great sinner on earth; a woman who will not enter unless she can be guaranteed in advance a reunion with her dead son.

The common feature of all of these individuals is that they place their own needs and desires first: they will only accept heaven if heaven will conform to their view of what it should be like. In some cases, they will only accept heaven if they get to choose who gets in and who doesn't. Almost all of them ultimately decide that they matter more than God, and that therefore they would prefer to return to hell, where they can endlessly—and unhappily—indulge their selfish needs and desires.

Lewis's narrator, confused at the prospect that souls can leave hell anytime they want to, finally asks one of the heavenly host directly about the connection between heaven and hell. Can people really leave hell?

“If they leave that grey town behind,” his interlocutor replies, “it will not have been Hell. To any that leaves it, it is Purgatory.” For the people that choose to stay, by contrast, it remains hell.

The narrator, later on, offers the objection—voiced by many thinking Christians throughout history, including my own teenaged self—that it seems cruel that people can be in bliss in paradise while even a single soul suffers in hell.

But this objection holds no water in Lewis's imagined afterlife. All who stay outside the gates of heaven do so by choice. “No soul,” the narrator's guide explains, “that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it.” Should the choice of hell's inhabitants to reject God, the guide asks, prevent the rest of us from celebrating our choice to embrace Him?

Although I find Lewis's theology occasionally frustrating—I see much to disagree with in his views of women and sexuality, as I do in the views of the Catholic church—he remains one of the most imaginative and charitable writers I have ever encountered on the notion that God should be defined as the source of inifinite love and mercy—and on the implications of that definition for the afterlife.

Lewis's vision of heaven and hell strikes me as wise, comforting, and reasonable. Whether we'll find anything like it after we die . . . all I can say on that score is what I have said many times now to my skeptical friend:

How the hell should I know?

Saturday, May 7, 2011

On Mothers and Heaven

When I was in high school, I began playing the piano after a hiatus of many years. I had some lessons as a very young child, but they didn't take. Once I returned to the instrument, during my junior year of high school—buying sheet music for then-popular songs like “Piano Man” and “Sister Christian,” and painstakingly committing them to memory—I received my greatest encouragement from my mother. No matter how many times I had to play some difficult piece or passage over and over again, she never complained at the repetition; she would be working in the kitchen, listening, occasionally commenting, but always encouraging.

A few years of this passed by and I dropped the piano again, this time for a dozen years or so. But after we bought a piano for our first daughter, just after I had turned thirty, I began to play again. I still had some sheet music, and I bought some more. Once again I found myself able to get lost for hours in learning and memorizing songs, and taking great satisfaction in the process.

When my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer, in September of 2003, I had been at it for a couple of years, practicing very diligently, and I had a book of classical songs that I worked very hard at. A month or two before she died, I called her on the phone and asked her to listen while I played her something. I set the phone on the piano, and fumbled my way through a halting version of Puccini's “Nessun Dorma,” one of her favorite classical melodies. In retrospect, it probably sounded horrible, but of course she praised it nonetheless.

In the years following her death, music became a much larger part of my life. I took up several other instruments, learned to write music and play with other musicians, and helped form a band. We're still going strong; we've played hundreds of shows, and we have recorded five songs that I wrote.

My mother never saw or heard any of this—she knows nothing of the fruits that her early encouragement have borne, or the great happiness and interesting opportunities that music has brought into my life.

Or does she?

According to Lisa Miller's Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife (HarperCollins, 2010), nearly half of all Americans believe that I will be reunited with my mother in heaven. There, I suppose, either I will learn that she has been watching and listening all along, or I'll have the opportunity to tell her all about it. To believe such a scenario may one day come to pass would make my heart glad.

But I'm not sure I believe it will—which made my interest in Miller's book, which has garnered both strong publicity and well-deserved praise, all the more intense. I came to the book hoping, as we probably all hope, to find more and better reasons to believe in an afterlife of eternal joy and reunions with loved ones.

The book certainly left me more convinced that belief in an afterlife seems to be an almost universal experience for the human race. Miller does an outstanding job of tracing the history of our belief in the afterlife, and of comparing theories of the afterlife across Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.

The similarities in conceptions of heaven are far more striking than the dissimilarities: visions of heavenly gardens, for example, or of re-union with loved ones cut across religious lines. I was also quite pleased to hear that most religions imagine heaven filled with music: “Not only do souls see God in heaven,” Miller writes, “they praise him, constantly, with song. To their arsenal of heaven's pleasures, the faithful always add singing.” Count me in.

To her concise and powerful descriptions of our heavenly visions, Miller adds a healthy dose of statistical information about what and how we believe. I was quite surprised to learn, for example, that a 2007 poll revealed that 81% of Americans believe in heaven. That number represents a rise of nearly 10% from a 1997 poll that showed around 72% belief.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of the book is the way in which Miller embeds her histories, statistics, and theories into real characters. The book features many scenes in which Miller sits down over coffee or wine—or, in one case, in the back of a limo on the way to the airport—with a theologian or popular author, asks them questions about heaven, and then uses their statements to help introduce or frame new ideas.

She also does an excellent job of situating herself in the narrative. She does not seem to have any kind of orthodox belief in heaven, or in any specific religious tradition, but she conveys both a deep respect for religion and deep learning about its place in American life. She has worked for many years as the religion editor for Newsweek, and her skills and experience as a journalist come across in every page.

Overall, Miller handles this sensitive and important topic as well as I could possible imagine: she combines the learning of a diligent scholar with the instincts of an investigative journalist, and the writing is sharp and clear throughout. I finished the book wanting more.

The book did not quite convince me that I will see my mother again one day, and that I'll have the chance to sit down at a piano and play her the songs I have written, at least one or two of which describe the sense of loss I felt at her death. I still can't find it in me to believe this with certainty.

But I don't disbelieve it, either. Miller concludes her book by defining heaven as “radical hope”: even though heaven may be “what we cannot reach” here on earth, she claims, it is still “worth a human life to try.”

I'll keep trying.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Moving Forward

This blog was originally conceived to help document a book project in which I visited and studied a handful of alternative American religious traditions. If you scroll back to the earlier posts here, you'll find accounts of my visits with Quakers, Zen Buddhists, and Seventh-day Adventists.

As I am beginning to think about what shape that book project will ultimately take, and moving towards writing this summer, I am uncoupling the blog from that specific project and turning its focus towards more the more general topic of religious belief in America today. As I have participated in a variety of religious services, interviewed people about their beliefs, and read both historical and personal accounts of different faith traditions, I have found myself continually drawn back to some key questions about what separates beievers from non-believers, about what common ground we can find in different religious traditions, and about how faith lives itself out--or doesn't live itself out--in the lives of believers.

Any of these big questions could take a lifetime of research to answer, and I only have one lifetime (at least here on earth). So instead of trying to offer a comprehensive account of religious belief in America today, I will simply chronicle here my ongoing encounters with religion, religious belief, and religious people.

I hope to continue my visits to other worship services, as I have documented in the entries you can read below. But I will expand the content to include reviews of books, documentaries, blogs, and videos on religious belief. I also plan to include blogs on spiritual travel--either trips taken to sites of spiritual or religious significance, or stops I make along the way as I am traveling for other reasons (for example, the post below on my visit to the Marguerite Bourgeoys musuem in Montreal).

Finally, I hope to continue to hear from readers who have thoughts on these matters, and who want to comment on posts or offer suggestions for any materials I might review, any place I should visit, or anything at all I should think a little harder about!

Next Up: A review of Lisa Miller's Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Spiritual Old Montreal

It has been quite a while since I posted an update, mostly because this time of year is insanely busy for me. I also have had a couple of weekends away, one of which was a quick trip to visit Montreal while my brother Tony was in town from Scotland. Tony and I have been working on an article together for Notre Dame Magazine on the relationship between religious faith and fantasy literature, and one of the highlights from the weekend was sitting in a brewpub for lunch in the old city while Tony outlined the remainder of the work we had to do on the back of a placemat.

After we had our lunch, we wandered off down the main thoroughfare in search of something to see, and Tony suggested we try a museum that was dedicated to the life of Sister Marguerite Bourgeoys. The museum description promised a tour of her chapel, a view of the old city from a tower, and an underground excavation site of a 17th-century chapel, so I said sure.

It turned out to be a fascinating place, in part because of the fascinating woman to whom it was dedicated. Sr. Bourgeoys was a French nun who came to Montreal from France in the middle of the 17th century. There she founded a small religious order—the first religious order to be founded in North America—and built a chapel and housing to help educate local young women. Unlike many schools and religious orders at that time, hers required no money or family connections to enter; her convent and school were open to all, rich and poor, French and native.

She served as the Superior of her community for many years, until her retirement in 1693; she died in 1700, at the age of eighty.

The museum fulfilled its promises, offering a nice view of the old city and a beautifully restored chapel. Beneath the grounds we were treated to a semi-private tour of an excavation site where the walls of the original 17th-century chapel stood next to two-thousand year-old artifacts from native Americans.

In the gift shop I bought a short history of Bourgeoys's life, and have been reading it over the past couple of weeks. She was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 1982, making her the first female Canadian saint.

I find her both inspiring and a little strange. Her complete dedication to the cause to which she committed herself, despite many hardships, is almost miraculous. She was so convinced that God would provide her that she gave away her inheritance, often traveled with no money or provisions, and lived with constant hope in the face of many setbacks, including the burning of her original chapel and house.

But she was also one of these religious people who mistrusted any earthly pleasures, and who practiced self-mortification in a frequent, informal way. On one of her trips back and forth from France, for example, she slept on a bed of coiled ropes for the journey of several weeks.

Still, she lived a pretty incredible life for a woman of her time, and her dedication to her fellow sisters and the students they took in was unquestionably powerful. For my fellow teacher friends, I will leave you with one of her descriptions of the vocation of the teacher:

“It is the work [most] suited to draw down the graces of God if it is done with purity of intention, without distinction between the poor and the rich, between relatives and friends and strangers, between the pretty and the ugly, the gentle and the grumblers, looking upon them all as drops of Our Lord's blood.”

Friday, March 11, 2011


But in making this or any other assessment about the denomination, any reviewer is confronted by the difficult of 'finding' Adventist theology.

Malcolm Bull and Keith Lockhart
Seeking a Sanctuary: Seventh-Day Adventism and the American Dream

From the outset of my time with Seventh-Day Adventists, I have been wondering when I would confront some of the doctrines which I find strange or silly. I have noted a few of those in previous posts, such as the belief in the six-thousand year-old earth that fundamentalists find in the literal interpretation of the Bible. Adventists also believe and hope fervently for the imminent return of Jesus Christ, whose coming will initiate a sequence of apocalyptic events that lead to the end of the world.

Last Wednesday, after a prayer meeting held in the sanctuary, I stuck around for a while and talked to one of the prayer service leaders. I have been hanging around the church enough now that I have made a few friends, and so our conversation ranged back and forth between personal and theological matters.

As I was getting ready to leave, I told him how impressed I have been with the warm and welcoming nature of the church, and with some of the specific practices I have witnessed during the prayer service.

“In the end,” I said, “if we were to sit down and talk about some of the specific things you guys believe in, I'm sure we would have some disagreements, but mostly I've really learned a lot here.”

“You're Catholic, right?” he said to me.


“Do you believe in everything that the Catholic church says?”

I laughed. I'm not a very doctrinal Catholic.

“Of course not.”

He smiled.

“Same thing here. People in here believe in all kinds of different things. What's important is that you believe. You gotta have faith.”

Afterward it occurred to me how much I judge believers in other religious based on their official doctrines. Adventists, Mormons, Orthodox Jews, Muslims—all of these religions espouse theological doctrines or political views that I find strange, silly, or off-putting for one reason or another. And so whenever I think about or meet someone who belongs to one of those religious traditions, I immediately put them into the box of that religion's official doctrines.

And yet, of course, I wouldn't want anyone to put me in the box of the Catholic Church's official doctrines. It seems silly that I would have to spend all this time and energy on my spiritual quest to learn the very simple lesson that other people are just like me—that I shouldn't assume the next Mormon or Muslim I meet follows the doctrinal party line on all religious matters, and that in fact we may have more in common, in terms of our beliefs, than I might have ever guessed.

Of course all of this raises a larger question: why do people, myself included, join or remain in religious traditions with which they might have fundamental disagreements?

Good question, but too large for this blog. I will save my thoughts on this for the book project—but, in the meantime, would welcome your thoughts and comments below.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Amazing Grace

I am slowly working my way towards attending Sabbath Services at the Pleasant Street Seventh-Day Adventist church. This past Saturday I finally made it down, but not for the 11:00 am Praise and Worship services. I had been invited by one of the prayer service leaders to an afternoon concert in celebration of Black History Month. It was held in coordination with two other local churches, and featured choir members from all three congregations.

The event allowed me to see in action for the first time the terrific package of sound and musical instruments they have, including a full drum set, bass and guitar amplifiers, a piano and organ, plenty of vocal microphones, and a full suite of video and audio recording equipment.

The concert was both a history lesson and musical performance. A narrator told stories about the different hymns and spirituals that were then sung or performed by various combinations of musicians and singers. A definite highlight was a young girl who played a trio of tunes on the violin, including a lively fiddle tune, accompanied by a terrific piano player.

I was excited to see “Amazing Grace” on the program list, since I have always counted this as one of my favorite spiritual songs. A group of women came up on stage and I settled back to enjoy the singing. To my surprise and disappointment, recorded music began coming from the sound system.

A voice began to sing on the recording, and the eight or so women up on stage—dressed in matching robes and sashes—began translating the song into sign language. They signed in perfect unison, as the song swelled and subsided, smiling and proud of the work they were doing.

Although “Amazing Grace” sounds like a cry of hope from the depths of black slavery, the song actually was composed by a white man—even more astonishingly, by a white British man who spent much of his life working in the slave trade. The narrator reminded us of the song's history; I had actually just read it about in a textbook I am using in class which covers the history of the slave trade in England.

John Newton (pictured above) was a sailor in the British Navy in the late 18th-century, and then took a place aboard a slave-trading ship. For several years he sailed up small African rivers, procuring slaves and taking them into larger cities where they would be sold and bound for America. Eventually he had a conversion experience, and wrote “Amazing Grace” as a spiritual autobiography in 1772.

The song was immediately popular, and eventually found a place in the canon of African-American spirituals. One author of a critical work on gospel music labeled the song as reflecting the “universal testimony” of the African-American experience of delivery from slavery and oppression.

So here in the Seventh-Day Adventist church, on a Sabbath afternoon, I find again the incredible potential that spirituality has to build bridges and foster community among disparate peoples and communities. A white man from the American Midwest, I sit in a church of black New Englanders transplanted from the Caribbean, listening to a song composed by a white British sailor and beloved by African Americans, and watching a group of women signing its lyrics to a church full of people who have ears to hear.

Amazing grace.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Keeping the Sabbath

According to Malcolm Bull and Keith Lockhart's Seeking Sanctuary: Seventh-Day Adventism and the American Dream, a big fat scholarly history of the religion from Indiana University Press, Seventh-Day Adventists are the contemporary heirs of the Millerites, a group of Americans who became convinced by a man named William Miller that the world would come to an end on October 22, 1844.

In the wake of that fateful date—since, as you may know, his prediction turned out to be incorrect—his followers split into a number of different groups, initially determined by their reaction to their disappointment at the earth still existing. The group that became the Adventists ultimately came to the conclusion that the process of bringing the world to its close, as described in the scriptures, had begun in heaven on October 22, 1844, but for some reason was delayed here on earth. Only until the work of “cleansing” heaven of human sin and stain was completed would the end times begin here on earth.

But a second belief of these disappointed Millerites soon became essential to membership in the Adventist church: the conviction that we were meant to keep Saturday as the Sabbath.

“After some years of disagreement as to when the Sabbath should begin and end,” Bull and Lockhart write, “they agreed in 1855 that Adventists, like orthodox Jews, must observe the Sabbath from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday.”

When I got to the Pleasant Street Seventh-Day Adventist church last night, for the Wednesday evening prayer service, I was able to get into the main doors but not into the sanctuary itself. So I waited out in the stairwell, hoping that the service had not been canceled for some reason. Eventually a young man showed up and tried the sanctuary doors as well, and then went down to the basement, where I could hear a baby crying.

He came back and announced that nobody down there had a key, so we would have to wait until one of the Elders came by and opened the sanctuary. Then he extended his hand to me:

“I haven't seen you here before,” he said.

We introduced ourselves, and I told him why I was visiting. I asked him about the Saturday services, and he reviewed the schedule for me, giving me the same basic rundown that I had heard at the last prayer service I attended. We had struck up an easy rapport, so after he finished talking about the services, I just blurted out the question I still had on my mind:

“So when I come here on Saturday, am I going to be the only white person in the room?”

“Not the only one,” he said. “There might be one or two others.”

He explained to me then that the church was actually composed primarily of people of Carribbean descent. Most of the people who ended up at the prayer service that evening—around eight of us—were from Jamaica, either by birth or descent.

Since I had just been reading Bull and Lockhart's explanation of the Sabbath, I thought I'd get his perspective on it. Perhaps now, I thought to myself, I'll get a little bit of the wackiness I'm expecting to find in this strange religion. I asked him whether, like Orthodox Jews, all work was forbidden on the Sabbath.

“Naw,” he said, “you can come in here and turn on the lights, open the church, drive your car, fix if it breaks down, all that kind of thing. But you shouldn't be doing your real work, work for your paycheck. You shouldn't be taking phone calls for your job, that kind of thing. You're supposed to focus on God on the Sabbath, to rest and rejuvenate yourself. But you can still make your food and do the things you need to do to live and get around.”

“So it sounds like it's less about forbidding certain things and more about encouraging certain kinds of things?” I said.

“That's right,” he said.

At this point an elderly man in a Boston Red Sox hat came in, and he too tried the sanctuary and then settled down with us in the stairwell. My new friend spoke again.

“I have a friend at work who asked me about this,” he said, “and I told him that celebrities go to these therapy centers where they have to put away their phones, and they're forced to just relax and do nothing for a day or more. It's the same thing. You're taking 24 hours out of your week and saying, these hours are for God. You rest and focus on what's important. You come to church, spend time with your family, have a meal together.”

“And you don't even have to pay a bunch of money to some therapy center,” I said.

“Exactly,” he said. “And people always say they would never have time to do that. But you know, you make time. You can make time for it if you want to.”

“Just like exercise,” I said. “Nobody really has time for exercise, but if you decide you're going to exercise, you make time for it.”

“That's right,” he said.

I don't know how many times, over the course of this year, that this same scene is going to be repeated for me: I go into a new religious context, expecting to be shocked or turned off or baffled by some doctrine or practice I have read about, and instead what I find are good and sensible people doing things that make a whole lot of sense.

It may seem horrifying to think about—I am not sure how I would handle it—but can you imagine the impact it would have on our lives, our communities, and our identity and unity as a nation if more and more of us began to take one day a week and set it aside to gather together, focus on family and and the things that matter to us, and share a meal or two?

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Wednesday Prayer with the Adventists, Part II

Today’s entry continues the narrative from last week, which describes my orientation to the Wednesday night prayer service at a black Seventh-Day Adventist church in Worcester, Massachusetts.

Once the prayer service itself kicked in, things only got stranger.

At the outset, there were just three of us present, although a few more would eventually join us over the course of the next forty-five minutes. The service opened with three hymns. The two others who were there with me, all of us sitting in pews near the back of the church, each picked out a favorite hymn or two, pointed me to the correct hymnal and page number, and then we launched into song.

Just three of us, a capella.

I don’t have much formal experience with singing, though I have been doing a bit of singing recently in a little musical side project. Still, it was difficult and disconcerting to have to join in on completely unfamiliar tunes in this context, trying to read both the tune and the words with no advance preparation. When there are forty people in a room, you can mouth the words and not actually sing; with just three of us in there, I had to do my best to belt it out and try to stay in tune. I would not have made it far on American Idol.

Fortunately, though, the male service leader had a great and powerful baritone, so eventually I realized I could just match my voice to his and get by. It remained enough of a challenge that I don’t remember anything about the songs themselves; I think I can say with certainty that they were about Jesus, but I wouldn’t venture anything beyond that.

By the time we were done singing, our group had swelled up to a half-dozen, and then it was apparently time to go around the group and state what you were thankful for. When my turn came, I muttered something vague about gratitude for my health and family.

Then we went around the circle again, this time stating what prayer intentions we had for the evening--another thing I had not prepared for. As I listened to the people before me asking for help for various family and health issues, I was wracking my brain to see what I could come up with. Finally it occurred to me that I could throw out the name of a friend who had suffered from several medical setbacks over the past year or two. So when my turn came, I mentioned this friend and briefly described her problem.

“What’s her name?” the service leader asked.

I hesitated, not wanting to expose her problem to the world, but then figured that it was highly unlikely that anyone in the room knew her. So I said her first name.

When we had all stated our intentions, everyone stood up, and so I did the same. We scootched out into the aisle, and then we formed into a circle and joined hands. I am not the most physically affectionate person in the world, especially with strangers—so as a friend correctly guessed afterwards, I was much more uncomfortable about having to hold two stranger’s hands than I was about being the only white person in the room.

At that point the prayer service leader designated three people as the ones who would speak for the group. So we all bowed our heads and closed our eyes, and one of the group members began praying for each of the intentions we had articulated. When he got to me, he not only prayed for a minute or two for my friend’s affliction, and referred to her repeatedly by name, but he also prayed for a few minutes for me—thanking God for bringing me into the church, and hoping that I would benefit from the service.

When he had finished, five or more minutes later, one of the other designated leaders took up the task, and also went around and prayed specifically for each of our intentions, again asking Jesus’s help for my friend’s medical problems in great detail and referring to her by name again and again. She also spent a minute or two thanking Jesus for bringing me to the service, always mentioning me specifically by name. When she had finished, a third leader followed suit in the same way.

The whole process took fifteen or twenty minutes, by the end of which—after dozens of repetitions of my friend’s name and medical problem—I could almost see her standing there in the midst of us. She had been invoked so specifically by each of the three prayer leaders, and they had spoken of her with such intensity and hope, that it was difficult not to feel as if we had done something good for her. I felt deep gratitude, as well, for the way in which they had invited both her and me into their prayer lives.

This was the real surprise of the evening for me. I had come into the church expecting to find people who believed in a six-thousand year old earth, or who handled snakes and spoke in tongues, or who would argue with me about the literal interpretation of scriptures. Instead I found a handful of people who seemed genuninely happy to welcome me into their presence, who prayed intensely for me and my friend, and who spoke with great faith and hope about the way in which they believed God could improve their lives. It was a salutary reminder of the ways in which spirituality and religion can act as a force for building community and creating connections between people.

After we sat down, the service leader spoke for ten minutes about a book that they had been studying. It was less of a sermon than a conversation, as other members of the group would occasionally interrupt and offer their own perspectives on the ideas in the chapter they were to have read for this week.

The service concluded with a song, and then one last gathering into a circle and hand-holding session for a concluding prayer. Afterwards we all hugged, and they asked me for my name and phone number, which I was happy to give them. The leader had told me that he would be preaching at that Saturday’s service, and as I was putting on my coat he reminded me to make sure I came by.

“I’d really like to see you here,” he said.

That was two and a half weeks ago, and I have not been back since, either for Saturday Sabbath services or for the Wednesday prayer service. That has not been entirely my fault; the snow here in Worcester has been brutal, and school and family obligations have interfered a couple of times. I did drive up the following Wednesday for the prayer service, during a snowstorm, and waited in the parking lot to see if anyone showed up, but no one ever did.

I am doing some background reading on the Adventists now, and expect to be able to get back to a service of some kind this week, either on Wednesday or Saturday, so I hope at that time to provide a more informed perspective about my next experience, which I will post about next Sunday.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Wednesday Prayer with the Adventists

This past Wednesday evening I decided I could postpone no longer my encounter with the Seventh-Day Adventist church on Pleasant St. in Worcester, and so I worked up my courage and made the short drive over to the 7:00 pm Wednesday prayer service.

I have been apprehensive about immersing myself in the spirituality of the Adventists because of the larger goal of this project: I hope to communicate, from within each religious tradition, what they all seem to have in common, and what we all--whether practitioners of that religion or not--might learn from the particular way they orient themselves to the divine.

All I knew about the Adventists prior to Wednesday evening came from their national web site, which puts a strong emphasis on a literal interpretation of the Bible. I have never thought much of strictly literal interpretations of the Bible, and so I was concerned that I would find more to criticize than to praise in the Adventists--and I have no desire or interest in criticizing people's deeply held beliefs on this blog or in the book project to come.

But, as I noted last week, I hoped that an encounter with people whose beliefs were so different from my own might ultimately prove more illuminating than one with people with whom I identified more easily.

At 6:45 pm I pulled into the parking lot, which had just another car or two in it, and then came around to the front of the church, where two black men were shoveling and salting the steps.

“Is there a prayer service here tonight?” I said to one of them.

“Yes,” one of them said, giving me a look that was somewhere between surprised and suspicious.

I faltered, and then worked up my courage again.

“Is it . . . open to anyone?”

“Oh yes,” he said, and then he took on a more friendly tone. “I'll open up the sanctuary for you.”

So I followed him in the front door, through a hallway, and into the foyer at the back of the church. My guide left me alone there, and so I was free to wander through the back foyer and out into the church itself. What I saw there I will save for a future posting, but suffice it to say now that--as a musician--I was immediately excited at the prospect of attending the service on Saturday. There was no doubt, from the equipment and set-up that I saw, that music would be a major part of this service, and that the music was going to be loud and awesome.

I went back and stood in front of a pamphlet rack in the foyer, planning on stopping the first person that came in, introducing myself as a newcomer, and asking them to orient me and let me know what I should expect at the service. Fifteen minutes went by, though, and still I was the only one in the church. I finally went and sat down in a pew, admiring the church's beautiful interior and wondering whether the weather--we were just off a six-inch snowfall--meant that I would meet no one that evening.

I was about ready to give up when a well-dressed black man about my own age came in and sat down with me. He introduced himself, and seemed delighted with my explanation that I was simply here to learn a little bit about the Adventists. He told me all about the church, about how tonight's prayer service would work, and about the schedule for Sunday's worship services, which began at 9:15 a.m. and went into late in the afternoon.

“We're here all day,” he said with a laugh.

He let me know that he would be preaching this Saturday morning, and he really hoped I would come back for the service. I'm not sure I have ever felt as welcomed or attended to as I did in the few minutes we sat there alone; he seemed so sincerely delighted to have me in the church that I felt immediately at home there.

And yet, as we were speaking, I was beginning to suspect--based on the reaction of the men outside, and upon some of the things I had seen in the church--that I had wandered into a situation in which I was going to stand out from the regular worshippers in more ways than one. Before I could ask him the question that was now in the forefront of my mind, though, a handful of others began to straggle in. Each of them initially gave me that same curious look I had received from the men outside, and then smiled warmly and introduced themselves to me.

By the time we were all in and ready to pray, I knew the answer to my question:

Yes, I was going to be the only white person in the church tonight, and likely would be again if I came back on Saturday. This was a black Adventist church.

Of course it made no difference to our purpose that evening, and nobody said a word about it, neither I nor they. I was certainly glad I didn't know about it before I decided to come down that evening; it would have been one more source of apprehension for me, and so perhaps one more reason I might have postponed the visit or changed my mind about exploring the church.

But I will stop here for now, and post again next week to describe what happened when the service began and the group of us sat down (and sang, and stood up, and held hands, and hugged) to pray.

Saturday, January 15, 2011


We live around a two-minute drive from a great Mediterranean marketplace. I like to head over there on Saturdays and pick up olives, hummus, loose-leaf tea, and other culinary goodies. A few weeks before Christmas, I was out with my oldest daughter and decided to stop in. As I was pulling into the parking lot, for some reason my eye caught sight of the sign in front of the brick building next door: a Seventh-Day Adventist Church.

Just as I had with the Quaker house around the corner from me, I must have driven by this sign a thousand times and never really noticed it. So, much to my daughter's mortification, I grabbed her by the arm and told we were going down to check it out before we did our shopping.

There wasn't really anything to check out, much to her relief. I tried the doors and they were all locked, and the only information came from the sign out front: Sabbath School at 9:15, Worship Services at 11:00, and a Prayer Meeting on Wednesday at 7:00 pm.

I went home and looked up the Seventh-Day Adventists, and found enough of interest to make me decide that this would be the next tradition for me to explore.

So after a break from the project last weekend, I have been gearing myself up to attend the services this Sunday. I find myself more apprehensive about entering this church than I was to enter either the Quaker services or Zen group meetings. As someone who spends his time interpreting texts, and teaching others how to interpret texts--in my day job as an English professor--I tend to be dismissive of people who refuse to move beyond the literal meaning of the Bible.

The Seventh-Day Adventists believe in the six-day creation story of Genesis, and sponsor a research institute designed to demonstrate that the earth is only a few thousand years old. You can read some of their literature at the website for the Geoscience Research Institute.

In any case, while I am pretty certain that I will find myself uncomfortable with much of what the Adventists profess, I also know that growth--whether spiritual or intellectual--only comes when you are willing to hold up your most cherished beliefs and ideals and put them into dialogue with the strange and unfamiliar.

So this Saturday morning I headed back to the Mediterranean marketplace, in part to restock on hummus but in part to case around the church once more and see if I missed any additional information that I might need before attending services on Sunday morning. If there is a special hat or something I'm supposed to wear, I don't want to be the only guy not wearing it.

As I pulled into the marketplace parking lot, I was surprised to see the church's parking lot completely filled. I walked over to the church, wondering whether I had perhaps stumbled onto some Saturday event that would give me a more informal introduction to the church.

And those of you who know anything about Seventh-Day Adventists will now be anticipating the punch line here.

I looked at the main sign again, and this time I read it more clearly: Worship services, it announced were on SATURDAY at 11:00 am. It was nearly 1:00 pm at this point--which means that, next Saturday, I'm in for at least a two-hour service.

But I will be there. This week I'll do some additional research on the Adventists, and hope to report back next Sunday on my experiences at the service.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Final Thoughts from the Dalai Lama

Happy New Year!

The new year marks a transition for me to a new spiritual tradition (more on that next week), but before I embark on the next phase of my project I wanted to offer a final commentary on my experience with Buddhism—-and I want to be clear that this is not a commentary on Buddhism itself, but on my experience with with Buddhism. I hope I can make this distinction clear.

I found much of value in Buddhism, as my previous posts should demonstrate. I think it offers a terrific array of practices and principles that can help people lead a happier and more spiritual life. I will continue practicing the meditation techniques I learned from the teachers at Boundless Way, and expect that I will continue reading works by some of the Buddhist authors that I studied during these past couple of months, including the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh.

In the end, though, as someone who has lived within a Christian framework for forty years, I found too many elements of Buddhism that were too foreign to me to make sense in my worldview. Those foreign elements were in some cases tied into the principles and practices in ways that made me feel uncomfortable even when I was engaging in the beginner meditation sessions.

I can maybe best explain this by noting a few elements of the last book I read from the Buddhist tradition: How to Practice: The Way to a Meaningful Life, by the Dalai Lama.

Two of the documentary films I watched about Buddhism included interviews or scenes with the Dalai Lama, and he came across as one of the most wise, warm, and happy human beings I have ever seen (search Google Images for the Dalai Lama and you will find a thousand images of him, in just about every one of which he is smiling). He had a warm and rich sense of humor, and yet came across as such a divinely spiritual person that it was not difficult to imagine how he inspires millions of believers. He also has an incredible track record of working globally for peace and social justice in the world.

His book reflects all of these qualities, and it has a particular focus on learning how to develop compassion for others. He suggests some meditative techniques for cultivating compassion that have made a real difference in how I view and treat those around me.

As he points out, for example, “each and every other sentient being wants happiness and does not want suffering, just like you; in this fundamental way you and they are equal.” What follows from this realization, he argues, is that we should do everything we can to reduce suffering in other creatures, animal or human. I have been trying to walk through the days now with this simple reminder in my head.

However, the Lama also says some strange things—-strange, that is, from my Judaeo-Christian perspective.

For example, here is a description of how and when human beings attain the deepest levels of consciousness: “Except in extraordinary meditative states, the subtlest, or deepest consciousness manifests itself only when we are dying. (Less withdrawn and therefore brief versions of the subtle levels of consciousness also occur when going to sleep, ending a dream, sneezing, yawning, and during orgasm . . .)”

Dying, orgasm, meditation . . . I get all that. But yawning and sneezing?

After I read this, I started to pay attention to my mind when I had to sneeze or yawn, and I never got the sense that I was experiencing anything other than a yawn or a sneeze.

More substantially, though, the Lama's spiritual practice depends upon the idea that you are seeking release from the cycle of birth-death-rebirth in which all sentient creatures are engaged. To offer a massive oversimplification, the idea is that as you become more compassionate and enlightened, you move up to higher and higher levels of bodily form until you achieve enlightenment and finally escape this cycle.

While I don't think this belief is any more outlandish than what any other religion believes, I also just can't seem to wrap my head or my heart around it. I am too stuck in a Judaeo-Christian mindset to accept this larger picture of the world.

So while I won't be converting to Buddhism at the end of the year, I do hope to continue practicing the meditation techniques it has taught me, and to remember, as the Lama says, that “even a small act of compassion grants meaning and purpose to our lives.”