a delicious discovery

Enjoyed a nice treat yesterday. To celebrate Heather's book being honored (and her birthday as well) some friends paid for dinner for us at the Chestnut Street Inn, a bed and breakfast not far from here. Monica, the chef there, made a four course meal just for us. A spicy crab bisque, with parmesan scones; a salad with dried cranberries, pistachios, and smokey bleu cheese; shrimp with an Aztec-inspired sauce made with chocolate and cayenne pepper, and baby potatoes with herbs and sun-dried tomatoes; and a chocolate creme brulee for dessert. Wonderful.

After dinner we got to talking with our hosts, Monica and Jeff, and it turns out they're looking for someone to help with their little garden. So Heather might take that up. They said they'd be glad to offer some more of their amazing meals as thanks for the help. Wow! This might be the beginning of a beautiful friendship...



Just finished rereading All The King's Men, by Robert Penn Warren. And decided it's my favorite novel. Warren was an accomplished poet, so the writing is terrific, plus it's got lots of dirty politics, a love story that's messy and complicated enough to seem real, a towering central character that makes it hard to decide whether he's the hero or the villain, and even a voluntarily poor saintly figure floating in the background. Inspired by a true story, too. Here's a taste:

He called me in and said: "I told you to dig on Irwin. What did you get?"

"I got something," I said.


"Boss," I said, "I'm going to give Irwin a break. If he can prove to me it isn't true, I won't spill it."

"God damn it," he began, "I told you—"

"I'm giving Irwin a break," I said. "I promised two people I would do it."


"Well, I promised myself, for one. The other one doesn't matter."

"You promised yourself, huh?" He looked hard at me.

"Yeah, I did."

"O.K.," he said. "Do it your way. If it'll stick, you know what I want." He surveyed me glumly, then added: "And it better stick."

"Boss," I said, "I'm afraid it will."

"Afraid?" he said.


"Who you working for? Him or me?"

"Well, I'm not framing Judge Irwin."

He kept on studying me. "Boy," he said then, "I'm not asking you to frame him. I never asked you to frame anybody. Did I?"


"I never did ask you to frame anybody. And you know why?"


"Because it ain't ever necessary. You don't ever have to frame anybody, because the truth is always sufficient."

"You sure take a high view of human nature," I said.

"Boy," he said," I went to a Presbyterian Sunday School back in the days when they still had some theology, and that much of it stuck. And—" he grinned suddenly, "—I have found it very valuable."



From a recent discussion...

Great examples [Francis of Assisi, Ignatius of Loyola, Martin Luther]. So what do you see them doing? Were they preaching their revolutionary ideas to others before they tried them and experienced real liberation? Other people followed their example, because they saw actual human lives that embodied the message, and people admired that example, saw that it was good and possible, and wanted the same for themselves (and their communities). They saw Francis abandon his wealth and influence, saw Ignatius renounce the power of violence for the sake of a greater power, saw Luther risk his life standing up to the oppressive religious power structure. And they saw all these things in Jesus' life, too. They saw evidence of real liberation.

Putting an idea into practice is a test of its truth: does it lead to liberation, or more disillusionment? The prophets and leaders you mention (and many others) didn't ask others to believe them if they didn't believe it themselves enough to put it into practice and test it, sometimes at the risk of their lives. They didn't tell people "this is the way forward" until they had some solid evidence, evidence they got through living it. Then they had something to preach that was worth listening to.

I keep hearing bold (and loudly critical) ideas from primitivist and anti-civ folks, but when it comes to putting it into practice and evidence gained from experience, I just hear excuses about why this isn't possible. Why not try this stuff first and see how it turns out in real life, then tell us what's true and possible, and what's not? I have a feeling the message would look quite different after actually attempting to live by it.


back to school

Against School: How public education cripples our kids, and why
by John Taylor Gatto

We have been taught in this country to think of "success" as synonymous with, or at least dependent upon, "schooling," but historically that isn't true in either an intellectual or a financial sense. And plenty of people throughout the world today find a way to educate themselves without resorting to a system of compulsory secondary schools that all too often resemble prisons. Why, then, do Americans confuse education with just such a system? What exactly is the purpose of our public schools?


we three?

Continuing "Are We the People?"...

In recent years, a number of theologians have recognized the apparent spiritual nature of our institutions and organizations, Walter Wink being the most widely recognized (with his extremely popular Powers That Be series). But they do not seem to notice that, despite the powerful effect produced by many people believing in a god, an immaterial “power” that they depend on and serve, such a god is not actually real. People create institutions and organizations, corporations and nations. But people do not create spiritual entities. Their gods are not real (and so cannot be redeemed, as Wink claims). They are idols, the work of men's hands (and minds), with no breath in their nostrils or sight in their eyes.

Yet there are real spiritual “principalities and powers,” entities not created by us, existing long before we gathered ourselves into collectives and institutionalized ourselves. And these have always found our idols useful.

The question for us is who do we believe in? Who do we depend on for our daily bread, and our security for the future? Who do we serve?

Do we identify ourselves as members of the corporate bodies of idols, have we made ourselves their hands, their mouths? Do we wield their authority among those others who also believe in them? What is our answer?

Jesus' answer was clear:
And the devil took him up, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, and said to him, “To you I will give all this authority and their glory; for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. If you, then, will worship me, it shall all be yours.”

And Jesus answered him, “It is written, 'You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.'”

(This essay can be downloaded as a RTF file here.)


we, too?

Continuing "Are We the People?"...

What is this great beast? What is the monster that Steinbeck describes? An institution, a social structure created by human beings. With no actual reality, except in the minds of the people who believe in it. Yet, as more and more people gather, believing in and submitting themselves to its order and purposes, it gains power in men's minds, great power, seeming to become something much greater than ourselves. Those who believe and serve it become dependent on it, dependent for their very lives. And it grows in complexity and influence until it eventually reaches the point where no human leadership seems to be in control of it; it seems to have taken on a life of its own.

“Men made it but they can't control it …it can make men do what it wants.”

Isn't this what an idol is? The work of men's hands, yet with the apparent power of a god, that people depend on, and fear, and serve. With no reality in itself, yet very real in the minds of those who believe in it. Wielding great power through those people.

And wasn't that always the nature of idols? They represented local gods, wielding power over the inhabitants of a city or region. Where they were believed in they truly seemed to have power, and their power was precisely the power of their united, organized believers. When the people were defeated by another people, their god either disappeared or took its place with the defeated people, submitting to the victorious people's god. The power of the idol was and always is the power of the people.

But that power can seem very great. We, the People—the monster, the Great Beast—even appears to have the power to define good and evil. Weil borrowed the image of a great beast from this passage of Plato's Republic (where Plato critiques those who are “wise” through their study of collective society):

I might compare them to a man who should study the tempers and desires of a mighty strong beast who is fed by him—he would learn how to approach and handle him, also at what times and from what causes he is dangerous or the reverse, and what is the meaning of his several cries, and by what sounds, when another utters them, he is soothed or infuriated; and you may suppose further, that when, by continually attending upon him, he has become perfect in all this, he calls his knowledge wisdom, and makes of it a system or art, which he proceeds to teach, although he has no real notion of what he means by the principles or passions of which he is speaking, but calls this honorable and that dishonorable, or good or evil, or just or unjust, all in accordance with the tastes and tempers of the great brute. Good he pronounces to be that in which the beast delights and evil to be that which he dislikes…
To Plato's observation, Weil adds this insight: “The power of the social element. Agreement between several men brings with it a feeling of reality. It brings with it also a sense of duty. Divergence, where this agreement is concerned, appears as a sin. Hence all returns to the fold are possible. The state of conformity is an imitation of grace.”

We, the People is a demanding god, but also a forgiving god. If you conform you are accepted, and a use is found for you.

We desire so much to be forgiven and accepted. To become a part of something greater than ourselves, to be united as one with our fellow human beings. And with good reason; we were created for this. But there is only one real, living, corporate Body, and it is not created by us. All other corporate "bodies" are lies, false substitutions for the living One. They are idols.

Now it may seem that the belief and participation in collective "bodies," our creation and service of human institutions, is too widespread to be considered idolatry. It pervades our whole society, both now and throughout history. But we should recall that Jesus' term for those who do not serve God was "the world."

Continued tomorrow...


well, are we?

Struggling with some stressful issues these past few days got me thinking of a essay from a while back, "Are we the people?" So I found it and reread it. It's still very important to me; experiences these past three years make me believe it all the more. I think I'll post it again:

The owner men explained the workings and the thinkings of the monster that was stronger than they were…. “You see, a bank or company… those creatures don't breathe air, don't eat side-meat. They breathe profits; they eat interest on money. If they don't get it, they die the way you die without air, without side-meat. It is a sad thing, but it is so. It is just so…. The bank—the monster has to have profits all the time. It can't wait. It'll die. When the monster stops growing it dies. It can't stay one size….”

And at last the owner men came to the point. “The tenant system won't work, any more. One man on a tractor can take the place of twelve or fourteen families. Pay him a wage and take all the crop. We have to do it. We don't like to do it. But the monster's sick. Something's happened to the monster….”

“Sure,” cried the tenant men, “but it's our land. We measured it and broke it up. We were born on it, and we got killed on it, died on it. Even if it's no good, it's still ours….”

“We're sorry. It's not us. It's the monster. The bank isn't like a man.”

“Yes, but the bank is made up of men.”

“No. You're wrong there—quite wrong there. The bank is something else than men. It happens that every man in a bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It's the monster. Men made it but they can't control it.

“…The monster isn't men, but it can make men do what it wants.”

That passage, from John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, is perhaps the best description of human idolatry that I have ever seen. We commonly think of idols as ancient, exotic things. Little carved statues that superstitious and simple-minded people bowed to in their homes and in their pagan temples. But I have become convinced that idols are, and always have been, us.

Not little carved images, not things at all. The idol is us. People, gathered into a collective, man-made “us.” We, the People.

In Gravity and Grace, Simone Weil wrote:
The Great Beast is the only object of idolatry, the only ersatz of God, the only imitation of something which is infinitely far from me and which is I myself.

It is impossible for me to take myself as an end or, in consequence, my fellow man as an end, since he is my fellow. Nor can I take a material thing, because matter is still less capable of having finality conferred upon it than [individual] human beings are.

Only one thing can be taken as an end, for in relation to the human person it possesses a kind of transcendence: this is the collective.

Continued tomorrow...


by chico


"soul encounters"

I've been in Chicago most of this week, visiting some of the ministries that send retreatants to us. I notice I'm not as comfortable in the city as I used to be. Seems noisier, puts me on edge.

The experience reminded me of a conversation about wilderness trips and the importance of nature in spiritual awakenings. I can certainly see how it's often easier to focus and listen to the "still, small voice" when we're in a wilderness (or more natural) setting. That's part of what we offer to the retreat guests who come out to the farm.

But I don't think that natural setting is crucial. God can get through to us anywhere, if we're at all willing. Which is good, because lots of us can't afford or manage to get out to the wilderness very often. I noticed a pretty good observation from one of the organizations that offer guided wilderness "quests": "People experience genuine and profound soul encounter only under the most extraordinary of circumstances. And it turns out there are only a few categories of such circumstances." Such as:

  • Significantly traumatic personal crises, including
    • major physical trauma (injury or illness), often resulting in a near-death experience
    • loss of a primary relationship (through death or otherwise)
    • an extreme psychosocial life crisis that forces us to re-examine everything in our life
    • spiritual crisis
    • a "dark-night-of-the soul" experience
  • World-shattering or mind-blowing experiences: an occurrence that is not only extraordinary, but that significantly and irrevocably changes our understanding of what the world is and how it works
  • Genuine and extended "wanderings" in which we journey far from "home" in both the physical and psychological senses, all the while without contact with "home" (e.g., a year in the desert or in a truly foreign culture)
  • Rites of initiation or rites of passage: ceremonial processes specifically designed to temporarily displace the ego-bound state of consciousness to allow for the encounter with soul.
That particular organization offers the last option on the list (for quite a fee). But I found it interesting that that last one is the only one that we can try to make happen. All the rest usually happen to us. And of course those are the far more common settings for our spiritual awakenings.

We don't set those up for ourselves, though. (And we don't have to pay cash for them, unless our "life crisis" happens to be something like a crash of the stock market.) We can't create the most common, most powerful conditions for our "soul encounters." They have to be set up by someone who can manage much more than our little lives, someone who can take the whole world apart if necessary. And put it together again.

And all those other soul-jarring experiences don't have to happen in the wilderness. They can, and very regularly do, happen right where we are. Not when we choose them or can afford to buy them, but usually when we least expect them.



Jason asked about the new community garden, if I had any pictures. So here's one I took as the sun was setting behind the trees. We're in the middle of a serious drought, but Heather has managed to keep things growing pretty well.

Our friends Dan and Camille are here for the summer, and they've been helping a lot too. They did all the watering and picking and weeding while Heather was gone this past week, and had enough produce for everyone with lots left over to take to other friends in Chicago.

Pretty big sunflowers, eh? Here's another shot of them.


"a nuclear explosion is awesome"