Saturday, December 17, 2011

the pope within

An Associated Press story notes that the Roman Catholic pope, Benedict XVI, 85, seems to be flagging.

Back at home, however, it seems the daily grind of being pope - the audiences with visiting heads of state, the weekly public catechism lessons, the sessions with visiting bishops - has taken its toll. A spark is gone. He doesn't elaborate off-the-cuff much anymore, and some days he just seems wiped out.
Does anyone doubt that the time will come when all matters, large and small, will be set aside, left behind, and no longer so compelling?

My question is, why wait for 'then' when there is 'now'?

A friend once reported to me that my Zen teacher, Kyudo Nakagawa Roshi, had stopped attending the early-morning chanting at the Japanese monastery he headed up, Ryutaku-ji. Morning chanting is a staple of many monastic settings -- a brick in the wall of ritual and practice. It is important. And for one of the top dogs to bow out or decline or set aside is ... well, upsetting in some small way: My tireless hero needs a nap. He is tired. And the edifice in my mind is somehow diminished: I don't want him to offer proof positive that even tireless heroes get tired, get old, get less interested in encouraging the efforts of those less tutored ... by which I mean, "me."

Two things at least seem to be at play: 1. Someone who has devoted the better part of a lifetime to a particular course of action seems to grow tired of his own enthusiasms, to be more willing to let those enthusiasms fend for themselves, and even to consider other, less glowing enthusiasms ... like taking a nap or even doing today what might have been called naughty yesterday. What was savory has become burdensome and, well, nap time! 2. Those who follow in the wake of a tireless hero -- or anyway a wise expositor -- are left staring in the mirror: Who will be the grown-up when the grown-ups decline to fill that role? I love to follow such an august presence, but when that presence no longer leads, I am left with the mirror ... and an eek ... moi?! the leader?! Moi?! the august one?!

Everyone's got a pope within -- or anyway that's my guess. There is a voice or chorus that prioritizes this life, that points and encourages, that distinguishes and dissects, that prescribes actions and imposes penance, that lolls at ease on the pillows of bias and judgment. The course is revised now and again, but the pope points the way. The pope is full of pep and importance. I like chocolate and disdain anchovies ... the pope has spoken and what he says is true.

But such truths are wearisome after a bit. Benedict is getting old. Is there some reason he should not become tired of the nostrums of yore? There is physically old, which is demonstrable, and there is mentally old ... just recognizing that there is no energy left for what was once filled with pep. Put briefly, we grow out of what once we grew into with gusto. Denial is hardly an antidote. Isn't all this just what actually happens? Is there a reason to take on some new gusto or return to the stale bread of past gusto? Why? Does being alive require anyone's gusto?

I don't know who spoke the words, but the old Zen teacher Ta Hui once credited an "ancient worthy" as saying,

Having some attainment is the jackal's yelp.
Having no attainment is the lion's roar.
I imagine that Benedict may be edging up on his lion.

I imagine he is setting an example all of us will follow ... like it or not.


  1. It's a good encouragement, and I see your drift I believe. However, I also cannot forget Sasaki Roshi, who works tirelessly in and out every day. Mind tired, body very tired, and yet he marches on every day, doing the work that not one of us can yet do for him.

  2. "...doing the work that not one of us can yet do for him."

    Nor, I think you'll agree if you think it over, could you ever.