Monkish Humor

11:44 AM Jun 18, 2005by Rob Ritchie

There are some jokes that make you think, and others that make you run for a dictionary.

...I believe that my favorite instance of monastic humor came as I arrived for a schola [choir] practice during Holy Week as St. John's. As I took my seat among the other women, I noticed that the monk behind me, a friend, was gazing at the ceiling. I said, "Ooooh, a monk in rapt contemplation, something I have longed to see." He replied, "It was just an erotic fantasy, Kathleen." "Oh, is that all," I said. Another monk said, "What he means by 'erotic,' Kathleen, is what most people mean by 'eremitic.'" The schola director, more amused than impatient, waited for the laughter to subside. And then we began to sing.

from Monastic Park, page 345

More on metaphor

11:37 AM Jun 9, 2005by Rob Ritchie

I'll stake a claim to Revelation simply by saying that I like any story with dragons in it. But this is a somewhat guilty pleasure; in some circles you can be labeled a fundamentalist just by admitting that you like the Book of Revelation. I suspect that this attitude is evidence of the extreme literalism, the fear of metaphor that in some ways defines American culture. But it also reflects a curious symbiosis of fundamentalists and liberals within American Christianity, in which the liberals have tended to cede to fundamentalists the literature of apocalyptic vision.

The Book of Revelation confronts our literalism by assaulting our fear of metaphor head-on, defying our denial of whatever is unpleasant or uncontrollable. As a writer, I know how unpleasant, even scary, metaphor can be. It doesn’t surprise me that people try to control it in whatever way they can, the fundamentalists with literal interpretations of prophetic and apocalyptic texts that deny the import of its metaphorical language, the liberals by attempting to eliminate metaphoric images of plague, punishment, the heavenly courts, martyrdom, and even the cross – that might be deemed offensive, depressing or judgemental.

from A Story With Dragons, page 210

I think that Americans really do have a problem with metaphor, especially in the political sphere. This unfamiliarity leads to inept constructions like "Bush is Hitler", "Guantanamo is a Gulag" and "Iraq is as bad as the Holocaust".

These metaphors resonate with some people, but are nonsensical and offensive to others.

10:11 PM Jun 6, 2005

by Rob Ritchie

Apropos of our discussion yesterday about the insertion of 'inclusive' pronouns into Liturgy, come these passages from The Cloister Walk, this time from the chapter entitled The War on Metaphor, pg. 154:

Poets believe in metaphor, and that alone sets them apart from many Christians, particularly people educated to be pastors and church workers. As one pastor of Spencer Memorial - by no means a conservative on theological or social issue - once said in a sermon, many Christians can no longer recognize that the most significant part of the first line of “Onward Christian Soldiers, marching as to war” is the word “as.”

Kathleen Norris laments the loss of metaphor from the language of many reformers, with drier phrases inserted to replace the richer language of poetry, giving as an example a version of the Lord's Prayer whose first line is Our Father, who is our deepest reality:

Metaphor is valuable to us precisely because it is not vapid, not a blank word such as “reality” that has no grounding in the five senses. Metaphor draws on images from the natural world, from our senses, and from the world of human social structures, and yokes them to psychological and spiritual realities in such a way that we're often left gasping; we have no way to fully explain a metaphor's power, it simply is. What I find offensive about some new bible translations is the way in which they veer toward abstraction and away from metaphor. The new Inclusive Language new Testament and Psalms published by Oxford is an egregious example. The translation committee omitted metaphors of darkness as being too close to “darkies,” and therefore racist. Thus John 1:5 is rendered, dully, as “The light shines in the deepest night, and the night did not overcome it.” The question this new literalism raises for me is what time of the night? 1 A.M., or 3? The fact that the translators imagine “night” to be an adequate substitute for “darkness” only proves that they have a seriously impoverished understanding of metaphor and the nature of language.

What these liturgical reformers need to understand is that by changing beloved hymns and prayers in what is so obviously a political way, thay are having the following effect: their attempts to make the litergy more inclusive works to make me, and many like me, feel excluded.

And I can't help wondering if that's their goal.

4:18 PM May 27, 2005

by Rob Ritchie

Another quote from The Cloister Walk:

For nearly twenty years, my immediate family has lived as a three-generation commune in Honolulu….over the years, the family has found many reasons to value this way of life. “There’s always somebody home at my house,” one niece told her kindergarten teacher, who asked how she might reach family members during the day. (With two ministers, a financial planner, a jazz musician, and a law office manager, there’s only one person who works on a nine-to-five schedule.) And one year, I was touched to hear my four-year-old nephew call out, “Anybody! Anybody!” when he was in some kind of jam and needed help. I was one of the four family members who responded (three adults and a teenager), and I thought to myself, there are worse ways to learn about trust in this world.

from The Christmas Music, page 81

10:40 PM May 25, 2005

by Rob Ritchie

Another quote from The Cloister Walk:

Being a lector is a unique experience; it feels nothing like reading poems, my own or anyone else's, to an audience. And it's certainly not a performance; no emoting, or the monks would have my hide. The Liturgy of the Word is prayer. You pray the scriptures with, and for, the people assembled, and the words go out to them, touching them in ways only God can imagine. The words are all that matter, and you send them out as prayer, hoping to become invisible behind them.

from New York City: the Trappist Connection, page 68

1:28 PM May 22, 2005

by Rob Ritchie

Another quote from The Cloister Walk:

Walter Brueggeman...suggests that "a sense of call in our time is profoundly countercultural," and notes that "the ideology of our time is that we can live 'an uncalled life,' one not referred to any purpose beyond one's self." I suspect that this idol of the autonomous, uncalled life has a shadow side that demands that we resist the notion that another might be different, might indeed experience a call. Our idol of the autonomous individual is a sham; the truth is we expect everyone to be the same, and dismiss as elitist those who are working through a call to any genuine vocation. It may be that our culture so fears the necessary other that it has grown unable to identify and name real differences without becoming defensive about them.

from Jeremiah as Writer: The Necessary Other, page 41

1:07 PM May 15, 2005

by Rob Ritchie

I'm currently working through The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris.

As I find passages that strike me as interesting or amusing, I'll share them. Here's one:

Monasticism is a way of life, and monasteries are full of real people. In considering the great tensions that have always existed in the monastic imperative – between structure and freedom, diversity and unity, openness to the world and retreat from it – monks are better off when they retain the ability to laugh at themselves. One monk, when asked about diversity in his small community, said that there were people who can meditate all day and others who can’t sit still for five minutes; monks who are scholars and those who are semiliterate; chatterboxes and those who emulate Calvin Coolidge with regard to speech. “But,” he said, “our biggest problem is that each man here had a mother who fried potatoes in a different way.”

from The Difference, page 21