071: Conversation with Fr Edward Beck

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f today’s “Conversation” sounds a bit like “The Da Vinci Code” or “National Treasure” — well, it’s proof that real spirituality often is far more fascinating than fiction. It’s a true story, now in the form of a book by the red-hot Catholic writer, Father Edward L. Beck. And it starts like this:
    While traveling far from home in a remote part of the world, Father Beck found a centuries-old icon of a fascinating image that transformed his life — and that holds the power to transform yours as well
    We are not kidding. That’s how Beck’s new book, “Soul Provider,” begins. This is a real story about a real author — and a really fascinating new book. That’s Father Beck in the photo at right; that’s the icon in the photo below.

    BUT FIRST — why do we call him “red hot”?
    Because Beck is more than a best-selling author. He’s also successfully working in new forms of media, weaving innovative online spiritual connections with people — like we are doing here at ReadTheSpirit.
    Now, ABC News has signed Beck as the weekly host of “All Together Now,” a new series on the ABC News NOW network. This series of video reports reaches ABC’s online audience.

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    For his brand-new online venue, who did Father Beck select as his first guest of the new year? Deepak Chopra. Why? Because Chopra and Beck pursue similar lines of inquiry: bringing truths from ancient traditions to a modern audience.
    CLICK HERE if you’d like to jump to ABC and watch Beck interview Chopra. (WARNING: To enjoy this, you’ll need a fairly quick Internet connection — and you’ll need to watch a short video advertisement before you get to Beck and Chopra.)
    The video interview is worth the effort to watch. Beck asks Chopra about timeless religious assumptions concerning, “Spiritual Renewal in the New Year.” Among other things, Chopra points out that Mahatma Gandhi carried a copy of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in his pocket.
    “There’s a lot of similarity between the deepest understanding of reality as we know it in Hinduism or Vedanta — and the teachings of Jesus Christ,” Chopra says at one point. Both religious traditions teach their followers that change is possible at any moment, Chopra says. In other words, a New Year’s Resolution could become a reality for people.
    To that message, we say: Amen!
    A terrific New Year’s Resolution to make — perfectly in keeping with the work of Beck and Chopra and ReadTheSpirit — is to click over to our new landing page, “Interfaith Heroes,” and follow along with readers around the world in enjoying 31 inspirational stories throughout January.

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    RIGHT NOW, before you visit the Heroes, let’s turn to today’s Conversation With Beck. He’s a Catholic priest of the Passionist order and is deeply, devotedly Catholic.
    The particular icon he found, actually, is well-known to another major branch of Christendom: the Orthodox church. Beck was so moved by the centuries-old traditions behind the image that he decided to bring these ideas to Western Christians in his new book, “Soul Provider.”
    Overall, Beck is emerging as a new-style spiritual memoirist. The reigning star of that movement, Anne Lamott, writes a glowing recommendation on the cover of “Soul Provider.” If you want to learn about other writers who are part of this genre, click on these names to jump back and read Conversations With: Rob Bell, Judith Valente and her husband Charles Reynard — and the patriarch of this style of memoir Frederick Buechner.

    Click on “Soul Provider” (the title or the cover at right) to jump to our bookstore, read our review and buy a copy of it. You’ll find Beck’s two earlier books there, too.
    AND, when you’re ready, CLICK on the link below to read the full Conversation:

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    DAVID: As we start this conversation, let’s take a big step back from the heights of spirituality. The cover of your new book shows an image of a ladder to heaven, similar to the one in the centuries-old icon that started you on the path to “Soul Provider.”
    But let’s start with a much more street-level scene in the book –- one that a whole lot of us can relate to: This comes late in the book when you describe trying to park a car in Manhattan and getting into a terrible argument with another driver. I think before we talk about the heights –- we ought to talk about the depths where we all find ourselves a lot of the time, right?
    EDWARD:  I was certainly embarrassed by that argument in the street! What I realized, a little bit after that took place, is that — even though we may be moving and working in this whole religious-spiritual realm -– we also deal with the same tensions and flash points as everybody else.
    In that experience on the street, here I was in my lofty pursuits as a priest, reduced to screaming about a parking place. This is what people deal with everyday and I’m no different than that. It was a humbling moment -– but it also was a connecting moment.
    DAVID: I like that phrase: a connecting moment. And I’m so glad you included that anecdote in your book –- and others like it –- because the truth is that everyone hits moments when we fall off the track. We’re real people –- and we only connect, I think, when we’re honest about our lives.
    EDWARD: It’s difficult as a priest. People may see my collar or my priest’s habit and think I’m not immersed in the same kinds of things that they deal with daily. But ultimately we’re all the same.
    DAVID: Not everyone would agree with us, though. You were similarly honest in your first book, “God Underneath,” and you heard from some pretty strong critics in that case.
    EDWARD: Yes. I was criticized for that memoir by some people. I wrote about my life with all the warts and I actually got calls from bishops who said I was too self revelatory in that book.
    I said, “Why do you say that?” The book resonated with so many people — the proof is that it sold so well. In the book, people saw a priest with all the humanity, all the warts, all the cracks in the road. That’s why that book struck such a nerve and I didn’t want to loose that in this new book because I want people to know that I’m still making this journey along with them.
    I keep falling down a few steps myself. I’m not necessarily the expert guide. And, that’s really the voice that’s needed in this age, if you want to talk about spirituality. That’s really where we all are. We need each other, but most of us aren’t looking for someone who has all the answers. What we’re looking for are ways to share wisdom with each other.

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    DAVID: One thing I really like about this new book is that you’re not even holding yourself up as an example here. You’re inviting people to come along with you and explore this centuries-old treasure of the Christian faith you encountered –- this spiritual discipline that’s “The Ladder of Divine Ascent” by this 7th-Century monk St. John Climacus.
    The 30-day process you’re explaining to readers has embedded within it a lot of spiritual elements that already are quite popular right now. There are even parts of the book that remind us of the so-called 7 Deadly Sins, which have become a popular theme again for religious writers in recent years.
    EDWARD: In this process I’m describing, there are 16 vices or sins to consider and 14 virtues to consider. That’s 30 things to reflect on throughout the process.
    What was interesting about working with his text was that, basically, he places the vices lower on the ladder for the most part and then as you climb higher.
    Actually, you start off, even before you move into dealing with the vices with these basic concepts like renunciation and detachment. He starts you off by saying there are these are very basic things you need to consider about your life even before you start thinking about dealing with the negative pulls in your life.
    Then he says you need to stop and think about what causes you to veer toward the vices. And unless you can confront the dark side of your life, you cannot move into the light.
    DAVID: Even this painting that you saw in the St. Catherine monastery in the Sinai -– you’ve got it reproduced inside your book and we’ve found an image of it that we can include with this Conversation With you. If you look at it closely, there’s a whole lot more demonic action going on -– a whole lot more pulling and struggling — in the lower part of the ladder.
    EDWARD: It’s interesting that it’s even artistically depicted that way and there’s Jesus up at the top beckoning people up the ladder. You move through that period of the most difficult struggles to the loftier virtues. I liked the structure of it — the self-reflection that it suggests. And, I liked the idea of taking a whole month to do it -– one step a day, rather than reading this book straight through. His schema is far too rich to read in just a couple of days. It’s much better to take the steps slowly.
    DAVID: I don’t want to dwell too long on the sins, because there are some fascinating reflections here on virtues, as well.
    EDWARD: Yes, that’s very important. So often, the critique of the Roman Catholic Church is that we’re focusing on the sinful parts, the bad parts. People say that we beat ourselves up a lot as Catholics. I hear that criticism a lot.
    People will say: “Roman Catholicism is inflicted with guilt.” Or, people will say: “Religion is all about guilt.” I think that’s a distortion of our traditions.
    The truth is that people don’t want to be yelled at from our pulpits, but there’s also a mistaken impression of who we are in this regard. I don’t think you’ll find most priests yelling at people from pulpits. I think our traditions actually look very positively at human nature, if we understand the traditions correctly.
    DAVID: I’m hearing a lot of people use this phrase “ancient-modern” to refer to this process you’re going through here, digging back across the centuries for riches that still hold a power in our modern world.
    EDWARD: I have heard the phrase and I like it and there’s truth in it. In this new book, I do look at very classical notions about virtues and values — and I contemporize them. This ancient-modern idea says: Yes, there is something important here after so many years. We cannot deny that the culture has moved a great deal. We can’t put our heads in the sand and pretend that culture isn’t important. But let’s not lose our rootedness.
    DAVID: In this book, you’re not only uniting ancient with modern — you’re actually reaching for something that broadly unites religious traditions. St. Climacus and his disciplines are well-known to many Orthodox Christians –- but you’re bringing this across to a Western audience now.
    And many points in your book seem to move in an almost Buddhist direction. The series of exercises starts with “renunciation” and “detachment” and you take us through to higher values like “giving up of desire.” One could see these, also, as many of the keys to Buddhist wisdom.

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    EDWARD: Yes, I thought that was interesting, too. You describe it very well in what you just said. There is this Buddhist notion that runs through some of this. To me, that’s a sign of how many of the basic values in our traditions actually run through many of the world’s religious traditions. To me, that lends even more voracity to what we can learn from these lessons.
    So often we tend to exclude other traditions. One of the raps we hear against Roman Catholicism is that we’re the people who claim to be “the biggest, the best, and the only.” We’ve all heard that complaint.
    DAVID: You’re a Catholic priest and you’re not saying you’ve got the exclusive corner on spiritual wisdom.
    EDWARD: Exactly. We shouldn’t put our heads in the sand and claim that there’s no religious truth in other religious traditions. We’ve got a blerb on the back cover of the book, recommending it, written by the Dalai Lama. What I liked about including that blerb is that it shows that we’re talking about truths not only for Roman Catholics -– and not only for Christians. There’s a broad playing field of traditions in spirituality that we share. And it appeals to me to explore that with people, because as Catholics we’re often the ones seen as exclusionary.
    DAVID: Even within Christianity, I love the fact that you’ve reached into the Orthodox world. Of course, St. Climacus was writing before the separation of the church, but this book is far better known in the Orthodox than in the Western Catholic world.
    EDWARD: It’s a world that I wasn’t very conversant with and I still want to know more about. I was introduced to this icon and this tradition in an Orthodox monastery and since then I have made a point of visiting Orthodox churches.
    I have gotten emails about this book from an Orthodox metropolitan in New York and from some Orthodox churches who want to use this as their Lenten reflection. The Orthodox church still does use this St. Climacus text and my book is at least something that can make this ancient text relevant to their youth.

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    DAVID: I like the fact –- and I think readers are going to find this refreshing –- that you’re bold enough to talk about the fact that we really should be going somewhere in our spiritual journeys. It may sound odd to say that, but so much of what passes for spiritual reflection these days is all about trying to feel better personally.
    But you’re actually talking about our spiritual journey as needing to take us somewhere and, as odd as that may sound, that’s pretty revolutionary in our era of taking care of ourselves, first and last.
    I was struck to find almost dead center in your book the instruction to tackle the vice: sloth, sometimes called acedia.
    EDWARD: Yes. What’s so interesting is that we live in a culture where we’ve probably never had as much eternal stimuli and choices for entertainment and choices for diversion and work demands and all of that and yet we still seem to be bored. We still seem to be listless about so much of our lives. You can even talk to people who are in high-powered positions in jobs that require a great deal of attention and they still can talk about this listlessness, this boredom with their lives.
    Or talk to teenagers and they’ll tell you, often, I’m bored. Why are we so bored?
    A lot of people are talking about this theme today.
    DAVID: Right. There’s another writer, Benjamin Pratt, who writes about the roots of this vice: acedia, sloth. It’s deeper than boredom. It’s an absence of caring. It’s really one of the major sins of our era, I would say, having read Pratt’s thinking on this.
    EDWARD: I agree. Nothing matters to so many of us any more. There’s nothing that we get that passionate about. It’s as though we feel we are overwhelmed. I think it’s observable in many parts of our world today.
    DAVID: Band-aids aren’t enough. Chicken soup isn’t enough. I keep coming back to that ladder metaphor you use. It’s a powerful idea to say: We’re supposed to be heading somewhere, not just sitting in one place and soothing ourselves, alone.
    EDWARD: You’ve hit the nail on the head. It’s not about spirituality light. We need to keep rooted here in everyday life. That’s why I told the story about the parking place. To think that we’re ascending to something better may sound like a nice goal, but I’m talking about staying right here in the world with other people, staying in our communities.
    But I’m talking about going somewhere in our spiritual development so that we’re better able to be a part of our communities. It’s not just about making ourselves feel better at the moment. It’s about asking ourselves: Is there a path we should pursue?
    Is there somewhere we’re going?
    That’s a great question for a new year, isn’t it?

YES, we think so! But, tell us what you think. Leave a Comment by clicking on the link at the end of our online version of the story. Or, Click Here to email me, David Crumm.

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