Homesickness for Alien Places

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“Homesickness” by Rene Margritte (1940). Used under Fair Use by Wikiart.

There are times when, after coming back from a sojourn overseas, we start pining for it. Sometimes, this pining can be the afterglow of a holiday destination after having to face the imminent return to the office.

At other times, however, this pining stems from something more than a mere reluctance to go back to the drudgery of work. This variant of the experience of pining for foreign places often takes the form of a kind of homesickness. This experience can be particularly visceral when one has lived in that foreign land, but they even come with respect to places that the person has not even visited. Regardless of context, these alien lands often stir our hearts, and we may often find ourselves whispering to ourselves that one’s home was not where you are now, but in these foreign lands. For those that go through such an experience, it becomes particularly poignant when that tug of the heart only goes stronger with each passing season.

The experience of homesickness for places other than one’s own can be a theologically rich moment of reflection. At one level, this experience can be an analogue of a much deeper longing within us, for a native land that is not only unvisited by us, but one that categorically transcends the whole cosmos. This experience of homesickness can be a reminder in the Letter to the Hebrews that we “are seeking the city that is to come” (13:14), and that until then, our hearts remain restless until we are restored to that place we have never been to, to borrow the beginning of Augustine’s Confessions. In other words, our experience of longing is but an analogue of a God given impulse to seek a more heavenly destination.

At the same time, however, precisely because this experience is only an analogy, there can also be a danger that our longing for other places can become an occasion for the operation of vice, particularly of the vice of acedia. As RJ Snell wrote in his Acedia and Its Discontents, this longing for another place can a vice-ridden restlessness when it becomes a longing for a utopia, and a neglect of where we are now. Those who have lived in the place that they long for may protest that the longing is anything but utopic, but as Michel de Certeau reminds us in his Practice of Everyday Life, our worlds always shift to such an extent that the place we thought was there never really remains. Thus, even when we have had a real contact with that other place, that longing can nonetheless still be the result of the vice of acedia, whispering to us to abandon all we have and where we are.

It may seem that those who harbour these longings are doomed to spend their lives with their longings unresolved and always at risk of predisposing ourselves to vice, and in many respects, that is true. We are however, also given in the Eucharistic Liturgy, a forum with which to reflect upon this longing. We are, in the Eucharistic Liturgy, not only abstractly engaging in a form of prayer, but also gathering a people who are acting upon their longing for a place we have never been – the eschaton. Yet, the vice of acedia is resisted precisely because of the incarnate nature of the Eucharistic lord, the Body of Christ compels us never to abandon our posts here on earth.

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Post-Materialism, Sacramentality & Marketing

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Creative Commons

A friend on social media once wondered out loud why a big telecommunications company would decide to come out to join in a massive media campaign by a slew of large corporations who supported a particular social cause which, on the surface, had little or nothing to do with their particular lines of business. The question then asked out loud was “what do these causes have to do with making money”?

Nothing was said out loud, but silently and slowly an answer came to mind which is only now being put down. A few years ago in The Politics of Discipleship, Graham Ward observed that from the early 1980s onwards, we have been gradually entering an age of what he called “post-materialism”. This was a condition concentrated in highly affluent societies where, more than survival, material superabundance is the (highly unevenly spread) hallmark. In these societies, goods and services are becoming cheaper and profit margins are shrinking with every unit sold.

In such societies, there are growing cadres of highly affluent groups of individuals with massive spending power, who do not have to worry about material survival, but still seek to have a meaningful existence. As a result, many would come to adopt causes and values that have little direct relation to their economic output. Such values can be environmental, minority-related, political, religious, artistic or cultural. These values need not be traditional – indeed one journal article noted that post-materialism is occurring at precisely the moment when traditional values are on a massive decline. – , and these affluent individuals are willing to spend a large portion of their financial surplus to support campaigns promoting these values. The financial flows that are generated by such post-materialist pursuits are massive.

What is of interest for for-profit businesses then, is not so much the cause per se, but the ability to tap into those financial flows and boost lagging profits. What we see is the latest stage of a trend identified in the 1960s by the Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse in One Dimensional Man, where consumption in capitalist societies come to provide not only material but also “esoteric” well being, so much so that a consumer can, to borrow Marcuse’s words, find their soul in their car or stereo set.

In our day, corporations have come to boost their profit margins and market share by deliberately turning the commodities one consumes to something more than a mere material product. Under conditions of post-materialism, corporations have taken on a marketing strategy of turning their good or service into sacraments of the non-material causes that one wants to pursue. By providing material signs of invisible benefits, the corporation is making money by turning itself into an acolyte of a church called the market, where one saves oneself by taking and consuming, and every bite is a prayer from which a corporation seeks to literally profit.

Discerning Before Utopia

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“The Daydreamer”, Creative Commons

This post was spurred on by two things, a class given on discernment at Campion College Australia and reading a letter in a section of the monthly journal Traces, put out by the Fraternity of Communion and Liberation.

In going through the contingencies of life, discerning God’s will is always hard to do. The challenge becomes particularly acute when we realise that discernment is almost always mixed with our desires and the frustrations of those desires by the slings and arrows of fortune.

Being creatures driven by the heart, as James KA Smith noted in his Desiring the Kingdom, it would be impossible to eliminate the restlessness that desire instills in us and the eagerness or anxiety that will find its way in the discernment process.

The reasons for our eagerness can be gleaned when one considers how desire operates in the context of what Graham Ward calls a “subject position” in his book Cultural Transformation and Religious Practice. Ward suggests in that book that desire does not allow us to keep still within our subject position, which is always made up of a whole range of social and cultural factors. Rather, our desires put us onto what he calls “projects” which, as the word suggests, projects us forward, pressing us against the confines posed by the factors that make up our subject position. In many respects, our eagerness inevitably will drive us to want to break many of these confines, and urge us to strain towards “where we want to be”. This is what Ward calls in his book “utopic horizons”.

However, our eagerness is often met with frustration because, as the name “utopia” suggests, our desires very often push us towards places other than where we are now. We believe that where we are now are but obstacles to our discernment and to the fulfilling of our vocation. We want to escape where we are and what we are doing, so that the will of God can finally be done.

This desire to escape our circumstances is understandable, but it must be juxtaposed with observations by Rabbi Edward Feld and Fr. Luigi Giussani. In an essay on the 23rd Psalm, Feld noted that, though the journey in the psalm is marked by many changes and much buffeting by the circumstances of life, the sheep are nevertheless still “on the right path”. Fr. Giussani put it more succinctly, saying once that it is in the circumstances that one seeks to escape where one’s vocation, one’s call resides. Discernment thus is not dependent on an escaping of those circumstances, but by pressing against them and feeling their texture press back upon us.

Meaty Souls & the Death of Prince

 

People die everyday, sometimes in great numbers at a single time, from wars, genocides, domestic violence, stabbings, shootings, prenatal dismemberments and natural disasters. We are so bombarded by death and the notifications thereof that the avalanche of bodies cascading down into the meat-grinder of history has almost become a kind of cultural white noise, the backdrop to everyday lives punctuated by the beholding of more virtual deaths on television shows, games and movies.

In light of this, it seems somewhat jarring to read on social media that 2016 is only now being singled out as a year of death, following with the deaths of Prince (and the less noted death of the female wrestling star Chyna) earlier this week and David Bowie a couple of months before.

Putting to one side the asymmetry of ascribing greater significance to the deaths of a handful from the world of North American entertainment (compared to the hundreds of deaths of more ordinary folk in South America, Europe and the Middle East in the same period), what one senses from the recent lamentations is the idea that with the loss of these bodies, a certain spirit of the age has gone with them. We the fans of these entertainers feel that a part of our identity – childhoods, adolescences, key stages in our lives – has been lost with the disappearance of these bodies. There seemed to be something more to these bodies than mere flesh, and clearly gets a sense of this from the obituary to Prince by Rebecca Bratten Weiss.

What this sense of loss of a communal geist that accompanies the loss of these particular bodies demonstrates is a phenomenology of the body outlined by the likes of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Graham Ward and St. John Paul II (and well before him, Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle before him still). We feel the sense of loss of a communal geist because, Ward tells us in his Christ and Culture, bodies are not mere flesh, isolated objects that are just there. Bodies are tied, sometimes biologically, to communal relations, and as such they are infused with the weight of the symbols that form and sustain that community. Lose that body, and you lose a node to those symbolic strings that were stretched and held taut across peoples, ages and places, held in place simply from that bodies presence.

What is more, bodies are not merely flesh because, as Aristotle once suggested, flesh is ensouled. Ward reminds us of the German designations of the word “body”, namely körper (to designate dead bodies) and leib (to designate living bodies). Ward notes that Leib was not just an expression of life as mere locomotion. Leib put the body as “the seat of the soul”. Put this way, soul and body are not the separable, independent categories that we imagine them to be. As Merleau-Ponty wrote in his The Structure of Behaviour, soul and body “can never be absolutely distinguished without each ceasing to be” since, as he noted elsewhere in his Phenomenology of Perception “man’s body and ‘soul’ are but two aspects of his way of being in the world”. The movements of the body, to paraphrase Aquinas’ de Veritate, are but movements of the soul, and the movements of the bodies of the entertainers that captured our collective imaginations, are simultaneously movements of their individual souls and the semiotics of the communities in which we belong.

Catholic Social Dispatches

 

With all the intense hypervigilence and dissection of the recent Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris Letitia, and equally intense online sabre-rattling over whether the Catholic faith has been transformed beyond recognition because of it, a lot of other stories in the Catholic social media landscape have received scant attention. Deliberately or otherwise, directly or indirectly, the theme of Catholic Social Teaching has figured rather prominently in these more marginal threads.

What jumps out is the way in which ecclesiology seems to undergird these seemingly diverse nods to Catholic Social Teaching. More specifically, these stories the attempts to position the Church as a crucial waypoint between the periphary and the centre, the hospital waiting room bridging the wounded and the well, the secular and the sacred and the ladder between the transcendent ideal and the less than ideal temporal situation.

Chief among these was the Pope’s recent visit to the island of Lesbos with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I. Both the Patriarch and the Pontiff focused their visit on those itinerant peoples who, for whatever reason, seek to relocate to Europe and found themselves stranded in that part of the European continent (other pockets of stranded are found in other parts of the Europe, mostly in the south and the east). Having concluded that visit, it was also announced that the Pontiff had also taken twelve individuals – those whose papers are in good order but remain stranded – onto the papal plane back to Italy. It is one of the more dramatic moves of a papacy characterised by highly symbolic moves.

While this story unfolded, it was also reported that the American Democratic presidential hopeful, Senator Bernie Sanders, addressed a conference at the Vatican at the invitation of the Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences. His paper, “The Urgency for a Moral Economy”, can be found in full here.

A third story can be found in a story (dated 14th April), in the Jesuit magazine America, which was a write up on Solidarity Hall, a group of writers who have converged in an online space started by Elias Crim, and has slowly evolved into a publishing venture under the management of Daniel Schwindt. Solidarity Hall now features its own contribution to the Patheos platform with The Dorothy Option. In the interview with one of its authors, Mark Gordon, the article spoke of the focus of the venture’s contribution to the development of the Catholic Social tradition by negotiating a “radically Christian life in the space between the state and the market” and the “polarities of left and right”, by reclaiming the “whole teaching of the church, unalloyed by the ideologies and false identities of party, class, even nation”. As a footnote, the article also mentioned by name the Divine Wedige‘s Matthew Tan, him being an Australian voice in an otherwise dominantly American project, contributing to the Solidarity Hall website on pop culture and total war, and a chapter on the migrant in their flagship publication Radically Catholic in the Age of Francis.

Catholic Social Teaching is not just about teaching or a space called the social, but also the bodies that occupy that space and live out the teaching. With this in mind the fourth item, a post from Rebecca Bratten Weiss of Franciscan University of Steubenville, deserves mention here. In it, Weiss draws our attention to the way in which a Church and a theology should not not only speak to and about the perfect or respectable bodies, but also those who enter its doors with bodies broken and violated from violence, illnesses or defects both intended and unintended, maladies that we try to shield our eyes from in our quest for the comfortable bourgeois Christianity. Weiss suggests that such imperfect bodies ought to be part of the story of the Body of Christ.

Hangry Eyes: Our Ravenous Seeing

 

Eric Carmans Hungry Eyes is an awfully corny song which, combined to the dance moves and fashion statements of the movie Dirty Dancing, form the quintessential signpost to the overall corniness of the decade that was the 80s. Corny though it may be, is there some ancient truth buried beneath the refrain, especially the line which goes “One look at you and I can’t disguise I’ve got hungry eyes”?

Gifts Glittering and Poisoned, authored by Chanon Ross and referred to in last week’s post, seems to indicate as much. The book makes the less than subtle claim that part of the religious aspect that ties the act of seeing to worshiping, mentioned in a previous post, is the consumptive aspect that ties seeing with consuming. Moreover, this kind of consuming far from passive and far from tranquil. It is tied with domination and aggression.

Ross refers to a passage in the Confessions, where Augustine recalls his friend, Alypius, and his addiction to the spectacle entertainments of the Colosseum in ancient Rome. Ross makes much of a line in the Confessions, in which Alypius’ addiction to spectacle was expressed in consumptive terms using the words:

he saw the blood and gulped the brutality, he fixed his gaze there and drank in the frenzy.

Another example used by Ross is the Roman theologian Salvian in his On the Government of God. In it, Salvian similarly makes a link between the gaze and eating. Commenting on the consumption of victims by wild animals in the Colosseum, Salvian imputes guilt on those that watch this violence, saying that

…the victims seem devoured almost as much by the eyes of the audience as by the teeth of beasts.

We may excuse ourselves by saying that our gaze is not fixed on anything so visceral or overtly violent. Nevertheless, the consumptive logic of our seeing persists, and Ross suggests that it is Christ who, in giving of himself as a spectacle to be raised up, takes in our consumptive gaze and redeems it by turning it into the gaze on a gift freely given.

When What We See Is What We Worship

The old saying goes that the “eyes are the windows to the soul”, and many are quick to scoff at the grave implications of a faculty that is used so often for such mundane things that it is taken for granted. Upon examination of the Christian tradition, however, such a claim, though liable to some qualification of being the window to the soul, nonetheless posits sight as one very important access point.

Consider how, of all the senses, the Christian tradition appears to give the most attention to the sense of sight, as if our being and our salvation – our beginning and our end – literally depended on it. The first creation account in the book of Genesis makes the  provision of light – the foundation of sight – the first creative act upon whichall other creative acts follow. It was the sight of a burning bushthat lay the foundations of the forging of the covenant with Israel. The psalms speak of the path of life as also a path that is lit by God, the Gospel of John speaks of Christ as the “light that shines in the darkness”, while the synoptic Gospels give great weight to, Jesus’ healing of the blind as well as the lame. Our salvation lies in a state that theologians call the “Beatific vision” where, as Paul once wrote, our true home lies in an eternal state of “seeing Him face to face”.

Scripture’s attention to the sense of sight is continued on in liturgical worship, where colour, shape and sheen are not incidental to the proper worship of God, but are the very means by which one enters into the proper act of worship. Seeing was very closely linked
to worshiping.

As we know from the Genesis account, however, a major contribution to the downfall of humankind lay in the eating of a fruit that was “pleasing to the eye”. Other than sound, it was also sight that contributed to the entry of sin into the world.

What is interesting to note, however, is that this kind of sight was not a seeing devoid of worship. However banal the object of our sight is, whether it is in a movie, news report, fashion item or porn image, the act of worship is never far behind. In his book Gifts  Glittering and Poisoned, Chanon Ross provides a very important insight into the link between seeing and worshiping. Ross refers to the Marxist philosopher Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, to show the way in which seeing in our day not only serves a material function, but is also a spiritual action.

For Debord, seeing was not merely an instrumental function, but also a tapping into a longing for transcendence. Debord speaks of our economy as one dependent on the faculty of sight, and argues that a sight-based economy is driven by a form of “religious fervour” for what Debord calls a “factious god”, and seeing becomes a way of accessing this god.

Though Debord sees the need for a change in the economy by ridding ourselves of the need for religious fervour and gods, Ross sees in this analysis a highly important insight, that Debord recognised that seeing is more than a function but a liturgical “worship of a …  god”. Ross is even more pointed to not only draw a link between seeing and worshiping, but saying that seeing analogous to worshiping. The beholding of a spectacle in an economy saturated with the shine of images and commodities, Ross says, “is like a prayer offered to a malicious god” which “opens us to powers and principalities”. Ross suggests then, that an economy built upon spectacle is not just a material order, but also an order oriented towards the worship of things other than the worship of the God of Israel.