Tuesday, May 29, 2012

God and the desert

Over the weekend I finished The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life, by James Martin, S.J. Alas, it is not a Jesuit guide to almost everything. It is a Jesuit guide to worshipping, written for people who are already practicing Catholics. In other words: preachy as balls.  

You may ask, why was I surprised by this? Well, I picked up the book after seeing Martin on the Colbert Report, where he came across as down-to-earth, thoughtful, and accepting. So I expected his book to be partially a history of St. Ignatius and partially like In the Spirit of Happiness, by the monks of New Skete. That book, although written by people who believe very passionately in a faith I don't share, is loving, useful, and doesn't proselytize. The monks are in fact very explicit about how their book is not designed to convert anyone or claim that any faith, or lack thereof, is better than another. Their creed can be summed up as, "You have a right to be happy, you should be kind to others, and you should get a dog." Amen. But this book was nothing like that.

Martin comes right out in the beginning and says he only wants atheists or agnostics to read his book if it converts them. I should have put it down after that, but I was curious to see how well he was going to sell that conversion. The answer is: not well. He should have started with the real-life applications of the Jesuit principles and done the hard-core prayer bits in the second half. Instead he starts with the prayer rituals, and the result is that for 170 pages the book's dry, pedantic, and dictatorial. I pushed through out of sheer stubbornness, and because the inserted quotes on many of the pages, from past Jesuits and/or poets (a lot of Gerard Manley Hopkins), pleased me aesthetically. I don't think you could pray a better prayer than Hopkins' "send my roots rain".   

The second half is better, albeit still proselytizing. In that half Martin talks about the real-life applications of poverty, chastity, and obedience. I actually liked his chapter on chastity: even if he's heavy-handed about how the only acceptable sex life is within a marriage, he is insightful about how our society devalues the love in non-sexual relationships, because so many of us (especially women) are taught that the only way to show love is to engage in sex, and that the only value our love has is in its sexual expression. It was refreshing to hear someone honoring the love between friends.

Unfortunately, other than in that chapter, I felt that this book was actively hostile toward me, and towards anyone who doesn't already subscribe to Catholicism or doesn't attend services regularly: there was no advice about finding a church which suits you, or incorporating religion into a life which didn't previously include it. It didn't honor any divergent beliefs, it didn't offer any way to use Jesuit teachings in your life without converting full-bore, and for all Martin's emphasis on "God meets you where you are," I came out of it feeling that if I sat down with Martin to talk theology and life choices I would get judged up one side and down the other. Again, to contrast with the monks of New Skete: I periodically return to In the Spirit of Happiness and always find something I can apply to my actual life and be more peaceful for it, and I'm often very tempted by the idea of a retreat at their monastery (or the adjoining convent). Disappointing. (Though not at all surprising that I identify more with Franciscans who raise dogs.)

Anyhoodle. I had to take frequent breaks from Martin, and in them I read The Judas Judge, by Michael McGarrity. McGarrity writes efficient little mysteries set in New Mexico; they're reminiscent of Tony Hillerman's work although without the glimpse into Native American culture. This was fine; I will probably have forgotten the plot in about a month. It made me miss the desert, though not as desperately as Hillerman does. Reading Hillerman is sometimes almost dangerous for me, because it makes me want to say, "Screw this oceanside living," throw the dogs in the car, and drive back to northern New Mexico, where the beauty is like nothing else on earth. As is the food.

I picked up another McGarrity after that, but the opening pages establish that our hero is on vacation and the book will be set in California. I was not in the mood for California, so I set that aside and chose instead Lone Star Swing, by Duncan McLean, a strange little travel memoir in which a Scotsman drives across Texas searching for the "true" sound of  1930s Texas swing. It was like an unpolished Bill Bryson book, and I mean "unpolished" not just in the sense that the pacing was uneven but that my copy had all sorts of typos and errors, almost as if it had been self-published, though that wasn't the case. McLean apparently writes edgy fiction, which I can believe given his attitude toward dialogue in his memoir: no quotation marks and very little punctuation. Needlessly pretentious. However, every time I was getting fed up with him he would drop in some perfectly Scottish humor and redeem himself. He does whine overmuch about the spaciousness of Texas and how tedious it is to drive across it; I have no fondness for that particular state, but some of us trapped in the I-95 corridor would give a lot to have empty desert highways at our disposal.

Now I am re-reading Antonia Fraser's The Six Wives of Henry VIII, basically because while watching "The Tudors" the constant historical inaccuracies are driving me crazy. There has been a lot of, "What? His sister Margaret married Lord Douglas of Scotland - I know that from Dorothy Dunnett," and "WHAT? Henry Fitzroy didn't die when he was three; he lived to his late teens," and so on. I can understand why they conflated both of Henry VIII's sisters into one character, but having his son die at age three just for pathos is very silly. And yet I am still watching! I do quite enjoy the casting of Cromwell. And hey, anything that gets me re-reading Dame Antonia can't be too bad. (Inaccurate. "The Tudors" is very bad.)

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