existentialist cafe

life is sacred

Month: September, 2013

The Ship of Thebes

Ever since I learned
About the mythic Thebian boat,
How piece-by-piece it turned
Itself entirely inside out;

I resolved to accept
That I, a new man, each day,
As tiny bits of my flesh
Succumb to rebirth and decay.

But though I’ve been freed
By endless transmutation
Not everyone can see
With the same imagination.

Namely my creditors
Still ardently claim
That the self I was before
Is the self that I still am.

If only had I construed
That they were so fast bound
To philosophical views
About where “I” may be found.


I can not recontextualize wonder.

I can not recontextualize wonder. To recontextualize wonder would imply being able to decontextualize it, and wonder can never be removed from the apparatus and means by which and through which it appears to me. I will only be left with an apparatus that once contained wonder, but no longer does.

I should just be thankful that wonder has deigned to appear to me. I should be thankful whenever I happen to trip into a moment of wonder. Thankful, because it was not my wisdom but my clumsiness that brought me there. I see wonder despite my folly. I see wonder, sometimes, despite my despising of it.

What then, can I do? I can not create wonder because it is not mine to create. I can only create the means by which it might show itself to me.

Stoned on birds

It’s fall. I was thinking today about the few times that I’ve be stoned without use of drugs or alcohol, or any the substances that we usually rely on to blur the line between subject and object. They are, for me, moments that are characterized by other-worldliness and arrested time. I wrote about one occasion here. The other was in the fall. It was my first year of seminary. Read the rest of this entry »

Can we give more than we have?

Can we give more than we have? The best healers heal out of their own intimacy with brokenness. However, the capacity to heal is one that must be learned. Not through the means that are typically thought – through school, or through some expert knowledge or mastery of a subject matter – but through wisdom. Wisdom bridles the powerful forces of compassion,  righteous anger, enthusiasm, or whatever emotion is pushing us toward the act of healing. Read the rest of this entry »

To say, “I do whatever I want,” is often a mark of spiritual immaturity. But it can also be a mark of spiritual maturity. I think this is because the passage from immaturity to maturity is a matter of subordinating our baser passions to our finer passions. The freedom that we all seek is the freedom to actualize those greater desires.

the Zen of sneezing

Who can’t appreciate a good sneeze? It is satisfying in a very fundamental, visceral sense. As the sneeze arrives, your whole being signals its imminence, bending with anticipation toward a good outcome. I don’t need to tell you the pain and disappointment of an aborted sneeze. Equally abhorrent is the distorted or misdirected sneeze. The sneeze that dispels some or all of its force against the throat and tonsils is a cruel mockery of a fine thing.

When done correctly the sneeze is divorced entirely from act of will. It seems to overtake you, arising from deep within the bowels and transferring its energy without loss or inefficiency through the lungs and out the nose. I think it is appropriate to think of well-formed sneezes and non-well-formed sneezes. A well-formed sneeze is like the proper execution of a Japanese tea ceremony – pure intention leading to pure act. A non-well-formed sneeze is not only inelegant but ugly and useless.

I had a professor who said that in her private practice much of dealing with anxiety was teaching people to breathe correctly. The anxious mind is so overwrought that it seeks to control even this simple, fundamental act, trying to abscond with the involuntary breathing muscles and creating a disgusting hybrid of forced breath that compounds stress and anxiety. So with sneezing. Control must be relinquished, though it is difficult to do so. As delightful as a sneeze is, one can not coax it. It can be invited, but not pressured. One can take a posture of openness and readiness, and that is all. A sneeze which is allowed to mature in its own time is a marvel. It neither hurries nor waits.

Thus the benediction ‘God bless you’ is appropriate only in the case of a non-well-formed sneeze, for such sneezes are indicative of the mind which has not subjugated itself to the rule of Christ. Such a mind seeks to terrorize heaven and determine not only the ‘day and the hour’ but also the manner of events that are beyond our control. But the day of the Lord comes as a thief in the night. One can only prepare the way and abide in patience and attention.

Now I know what that midnight crashing noise was. Last night this happened in the house across the street from mine. The crash was a window or door being forced open. Nothing really needs to be said. It’s awful. News crews have trickled by throughout the day. I didn’t even know about it until I went out to my car at 11am and stopped to talk to the Univision reporter milling around outside. It’s a queasy feeling, to imagine this kind of thing happening around you, and not knowing anything about it. Walls, even brick ones, are not thick, but they are thick enough. Part of me wonders if there are certain habits of civil indifference, habits that I participate in, that contribute to this state of ignorance. The other part of me recognizes the terrible trust that we give people to maintain their private lives. I’m also aware that we buffer ourselves against other people’s crises and pain. We must. Those who are unable to, devote themselves to ending it. I wonder if compassionate people find a different kind of buffer, a source of strength (being?) that enables them to draw near to pain (non-being?) without becoming subsumed in it. That is the mystery of the incarnation after all, how God shared completely in our humanity without getting mired in it. I get mired so easily.

A catalogue of gifts

Looking around my room:

One black flask, small, with the emblem of the Soviet state on the front and a picture of V.I. Lenin on the cap. Bought in China by a friend.

One black flask, large, with my initials engraved on the front. From my brother.

One ikon. Elijah being fed in the desert by a raven. Given to me and blessed by Fr. Tim on my last day as a chaplain at Lehigh Valley Health Network.

One purple tapestry. Brought to me by my high-school girlfriend’s mother on her trip to Thailand.

One polyurethane contact juggling ball. Given to me by a former room-mate.

One pen, wood. Made for me by my mother’s friend.

Biking accessories: helmet, two pairs of clothes, three shirts, etc. Passed down by my brother-in-law.

A yellow “The Who’s Tommy” shirt. Originally my aunt’s, then given to my brother, then to me when I was in sixth grade.

Three fedoras. Gray one a birthday present from my mother. Black one a present from a friend. Blue one a present from my mother.


I have, I will admit, a very superficial understanding of both Zen Buddhism and Christianity. I also have a tendency to make drastic, sweeping statements. Nonetheless:

I have learned from Zen to renounce self and illusion*, and in that way to accept all things. I have learned from Christianity to love and accept all things**, and in that way to renounce the self. Zen has taught me of the void and the holy nothingness; Christianity has taught me of the absolute and the divine fullness. I am tugged in both directions. I love the aesthetic of Zen, and the vocation of Christ. I want to be silent and I want to say a lot.

But like I said I am very unwise about these things, so do not listen to me.


*I don’t mean that I HAVE, just that I can cogitate on the path.
**ditto. I’m really bad at love and acceptance.

“Halt, halt, and be aware.”

Who is speaking? The anxious mind says ‘halt and be aware.’ This is also what the Christ mind says. The difference is that the anxious mind fears death, but the Christ mind welcomes it. The anxious mind wants to run away from non-being to find safety somewhere, but the Christ mind brings light into darkness.

The anxious mind is a closed fist. It wants to clutch. It wants to zero in, quickly. It filters and clears out everything but sign of threat.

The Christ mind is an open palm. It listens for a sound of delight, expectantly if not patiently. Hush! The footsteps of my beloved approach. Who knows where they will appear?–in a raindrop, in a cricket, in a train whistle?

“Attend!” says the priest. “Wisdom!”

The eyes are the lamp of the soul. When we encounter darkness, we do not need to run. If we choose to we can let the light of our soul illumine that darkness.