Monthly Archives: September 2016

Castles Made of Sand

beachI enjoy building sand castles at the beach.  My standard model is the hole surrounded by walls. First, I dig a hole in the sand deep enough to reach the water table.  This is the limit to how deep the hole can be because once the water table has been reached the bottom of the hole begins to get wet. If I continue digging the sides of the hole will collapse into the bottom. At this point the hole will only get wider and wider but not deeper.  The sand removed from the hole is then used to build a wall around the hole to prevent the ocean waves from pouring into the hole.

Eventually, the ocean waves breach the walls. When this happens the hole fills up with water and sand. It is amazing how quickly a single wave can erase hours and hours of work. Sometimes the entire castle is completely erased. Usually there is some smooth reflection of the fruits of my labor. At this point I can decide to give up or to dig out the hole once more. Usually I am good for three or four generations before I give up.

When the tide goes out the building is easy because the waves become less and less threatening over time.  When the tide comes in it becomes harder and harder to keep the waves from overrunning the perimeter and filling the hole and eventually the ocean will always win.

I have never built a sand castle that could withstand the ocean unless it is built so high up the beach that the ocean could not  reach it.  But even under those circumstances it will either erode for other reasons or some kind of blue moon tide will wash it away eventually. The paradox is that once the castle is safe from the waves it is no longer as fun to build. There is something about the threat of annihilation that makes the castle worth building in the first place.

So what is the purpose of this endeavor, to build something that will only be certainly destroyed? There is an interesting life parallel.  As humans we struggle to achieve something despite the fact that death is inevitable and whatever we do achieve during this life will be forgotten over time. We might delude ourselves to think that our legacy will be passed along to our children. But even our descendants will have no real sense of our existence a mere 100 years down the line. Eventually the Earth itself and all humanity will be consumed by the sun (assuming interstellar colonization never comes to pass). So really any concern about progeny beyond our great grandchildren is a vanity and a chasing after wind. In the same way concern for the longevity of a sand castle is a vanity and a chasing after wind.

I imagine a Buddhist would agree with the notion that building a sand castle is folly.  He might say that it would be better to not build the sand castle in the first place.  The ocean can never destroy that which was never built in the first place.  By contrast, I imagine a Christian might encourage me to build a sand castle anyway despite the knowledge that it will be destroyed.  For it is in striving to be better that I refine my soul.  Perhaps an atheist would say it does not matter whether I build the sand castle or not so I might as well enjoy the time I have.

It is interesting to note that when fighting the ocean the walls of the sand castle become far more important than anything they were originally built to protect.  Often there is never anything within the walls except a hole to the water table.  The walls are built to resist the ocean (a force that they can never hope to withstand) to protect nothing and when the sand castle is eventually erased everything is back to its original state.  There is something poetic about that.

To strive and achieve is somehow making the most of our mortal existence.  But to grasp at leaving something material behind after death seems like a fools errand and an impossibility to boot. Perhaps building a sand castle is being grateful for the opportunity to build a sand castle. Or maybe building a sand castle is to immerse one’s self in the action of building a sand castle. Or maybe building a sand castle is to acknowledge the ultimate equality of the millions of grains of sand that are used to construct the sand castle. Together they make a sand castle and individually they are nothing but sand.


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Spiritual Isolation

treesI have always been very confident that there is a greater reality that underlies the reality in which our every day life takes place. I suppose this is what the terms “heaven” and “the Kingdom of God” attempt to describe in Christian terminology.

I once had a dream where I experienced this greater reality directly. In my dream I was in a green room lit from some unknown source. There was a low humming sound in the background like a florescent light bulb. What was distinctive about this experience was that it felt “more real” than my every day experience. Along with this feeling of “real” there was also the feeling of recognition or gnosis. It seemed very familiar but not in the deja vu way where I am aware that something is familiar but cannot connect all the dots. In this experience the feeling was simply a timelessness and I felt like I knew with absolute certainty that what I was experiencing was the reality that underlay reality. When I woke up I felt an extreme sense of disappointment and a longing to get back to that ultimate reality. I had the feeling that that place was home and where the important action was happening. It pointed out the fact that in my waking life was an exile hidden by the illusion of normalcy. I had the sense that I was being left out of something that I should be a part of.

Similarly, I remember feeling left out in elementary school when I was not in the smart kid group but felt I should have been.  I was always picked last for kick ball.  I could never get the girls to like me.  People treated me like a loser.  Anytime I put myself out there and tried something new I was humiliated. To defend myself I isolated myself.  This provided some measure of protection but now I know it was me who was leaving myself out.  Because it hurt less than being actively left out by others I kept at it.  But as a result I never got good at those things I isolated myself from.  In a sense I perpetuated my sense of being left out by preventing myself from mastering those skills I would have gained had I put myself out there despite the fear of humiliation. Regretfully, I never had that moment of recognition and struggle to set things right. Now in many ways I am an adult struggling to catch up with everyone else.

I always felt the saddest part of A Christmas Carol was the scene where Ebenezer Scrooge finally shows up to the dinner party hosted by his nephew Fred.  Fred had been inviting him for years to come to dinner on Christmas Day but Scrooge always declined.  When Scrooge finally knocked on the door I imagine he half expected to be rejected but he took a chance and knocked on that door anyway.  I have cried many times watching this scene late at night and perhaps a bit buzzed. There is something about seeing Fred welcome Scrooge with non-judgmental acceptance and genuine happiness that elicits this emotion in me.

There is a connection between these three anecdotes. I am aware that I have been separated from my true self or home. Whether this means my soul, heaven, my true calling in life or all of these things I am not entirely certain. Along with this separation is attached the emotions of longing and sadness. When I see this separation depicted allegorically through literature I experience an emotional release. Emotions (particularly uncontrollable emotions) are always true. That is, they are always there for a reason. Their existence is a clue or a piece of evidence pointing towards a greater truth that what I suspect most people normally experience in their everyday life.


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Notre Dame – The Byzantine Empire of College Football

1918irishI am not an alumnus of Notre Dame University but I am Roman Catholic and I have many extended family members who did get their undergraduate and graduate degrees there. My alma mater (Boston University) did not have much of a football team (I don’t even think they have one anymore). Growing up, I was not very interested in watching sports on TV, however, in my 30s my cousin who went to Notre Dame got me into watching the games and gave me a bit of a window into its glorious past. Over the years I have grown attached to the team as the athletic representative of my faith tradition and faithfully root for them whenever they play.

Notre Dame is widely held to be among the most successful college football teams in history. It holds the distinction of having the highest winning percentage in all of college football. The team has also won 13 national championships according to NCAA reckoning. Arguably Notre Dame holds more national championships than any other team in the history of college football (with the possible exception of Alabama). The last national championship won by Notre Dame was in 1988 under coach Lou Holtz.

All this is to say that Notre Dame (without question) can lay claim to a glorious past. In recent years on several occasions Notre Dame seemed to be within striking distance of reclaiming this glory by winning another national championship. However, the team never seems to be able to quite get there. Last Sunday night I sat down to watch Notre Dame’s first game of the Fall 2016 season against a team they should have beaten, Texas. The game ended in defeat with a double overtime score of 50 to 47. Notre Dame’s chances to win a national championship this year (barring a host of unlikely defeats by higher ranked teams) seem highly unlikely.

The emperor Constantine the Great founded the city of Constantinople in the year 330 AD on the site of the Greek settlement known as Byzantium. This very strategic site commanded numerous land and sea trade routes and remained impregnable for nearly 1,000 years. The defensibility of the city owed to the fact that it was surrounded by water on three sides and by enormous land walls to the west. Constantine made his city the new capital of the entire Roman Empire. In 383 when the Empire was split in half and ruled separately by the sons of Theodosius (the last emperor to rule a united Roman Empire) Constantinople remained the capital of the East Roman Empire or what is now commonly known as the Byzantine Empire. This Empire remained existent although in ever shrinking portions until the year 1453 AD when all that remained was the city of Constantinople itself. Before walls were breached by the Ottoman Turks the last emperor Constantine XI is said to remark something along the lines that the empire would probably do better with a mayor than an emperor.

The Byzantine empire lasted for nearly a thousand years after the founding of its capital. The Western Empire collapsed in 476 AD leaving the Byzantine Empire the sole heir of the glorious culture, history, conquests and achievements of Rome. And as the political entity lost ever more of its territory it never lost its sense of entitlement to that glorious past and never lost the ever dim hope that it could some day reclaim it.

I was always fascinated by the Byzantine Empire. I have read several books on the subject and always find myself rooting for the Byzantines. I experience relief when I read about their victories and feel somewhat ill at ease when I read about their defeats. There is the sense that when the Byzantines loose territory that the natural order is somehow upset. There is also the sense that they will naturally regain that territory at some point in the future. When I read about the Ottoman Turks taking the city in some corner of my mind I feel that a tragedy has occurred. Something has been broken that can never quite be put back together again and the world is poorer because of it. When I read that the body of Constantine XI was never recovered and that he may have survived to continue his dynasty a tiny, flickering spark of hope remains that maybe, just maybe…

So here we are in the Fall of 2016. The college football season has just begun. Even though the commentators all agreed that Notre Dame was not much of a contender in my mind this was going to be the year that they came from behind to win the national championship that for so long has been held by illegitimate usurpers. In the past few seasons, the team has at least won the first few games allowing for the hope to build inside me. This year they lost their first game to a middling opponent. In the recesses of my mind something feels off kilter and the natural order is upset. But in that same recessed area of my mind lives the hope, nay the belief that this is all the prologue to their resetting that natural order.

I cannot help but see the parallels between the histories of Notre Dame football and the Byzantine Empire. Both are inheritors of a glorious past. Both (by all appearances) entered a state of decline. Both never lost the feeling that they were entitled to that glorious past and both never lost hope and belief that they will regain their rightful glorious heritage at some point in the future. I suppose in some ways the ultimate outcome does not matter. The story of Notre Dame and the Byzantine Empire is one of righteous struggle against the odds. It is a story of a faith in victory that exists even in the dank jaws of undeniable defeat. There is something beautiful there and perhaps on some level I can derive some obscure, aesthetic comfort from this intricate and nuanced tapestry. On the other hand, fuck it. I just want them to win.

Go ND!



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