Category Archives: Angels

angels

Prey of the Angels

Is there any true transcendence, or is this idea always a consoling dream projected by human need onto an empty sky? Iris Murdoch

testament of youthIn her beautiful and moving memoir Testament of Youth, recently made into a major motion picture, Vera Brittain quotes the following excerpt from a letter she received from a friend, a man whom she would ultimately marry in middle age:

There is an abiding beauty . . . which may be appreciated by those who will see things as they are, and who will ask for no reward except to see. There is a high aesthetic pleasure in seeing the truth clear-eyed, and in not being afraid of things.

This expresses eloquently what many (including myself) would consider to be the ultimate driving force behind one of the highest of all human activities—the pursuit of truth. In many cases, such activities take on religious and spiritual significance—the search for transcendent Truth and God. Yet such pursuits are fraught with dangers and pitfalls from the start. What if human beings do not possess tools adequate or appropriate for the search? What if transcendent truth does not exist at all, and there are only little, contingent truths that we construct for our utilitarian and pragmatic purposes, then baptize as Absolute Truth? time of the angelsOr most problematically, what if transcendent Truth does exist, but it is radically different than what we believe or expect it to be, different in some disturbing, frightening, or nightmarish way?

During these first days of sabbatical I have enjoyed getting back in touch with the work of Iris Murdoch, one of the greatest philosophers and novelists of the twentieth-century. In her darkest and most disturbing novel, The Time of the Angels, Murdoch’s characters grapple directly with the possibility that we might want to think twice about pursuing ultimate truth. Marcus Fisher, one of the novel’s main characters, asks “Suppose the truth about human life were just something terrible, something appalling which one would be destroyed by contemplating?” The Time of the Angels is a complex novel whose central events are driven by one of the most dysfunctional families you’ll ever encounter. The various characters take very different approaches to what Murdoch elsewhere calls the most important question of the contemporary age: How is one to address human spiritual hunger and need in a post-theistic age?post-theism Murdoch takes it for granted that the traditional religious frameworks within which spiritual needs have been addressed and spiritual hungers have been satisfied traditionally are no longer meaningful for the vast majority of human beings. Through her characters, she provides a wide range of ways to cope with this situation.

The real philosophical interest and “heavy lifting” of the novel swirls around the Fisher brothers, Marcus and Carel. Marcus is an academic whose writing project is a book with the working title Morality in a World without God. Marcus’s strategy is to accept the challenge of preserving a transcendent framework for morality, given the demise of the traditional religious frameworks that have previously provided such support for moral absolutes. He intends to argue that the religious myths and models of the transcendent are disposable so long as some other transcendent concept occupies the vacated space. spongHis insight, in other words, is that morality requires rootedness in the transcendent, but perhaps most any transcendent concept will do.

The energies and concerns underlying Marcus’s thinking come to light during a conversation with the local Anglican Bishop and Nora, a no-nonsense neighborhood woman. The three are having tea and discussing what to do about Marcus’s brother Carel, an Anglican priest whose expressed atheism and erratic behavior have raised serious concerns in his new parish. For Nora, the problem has an easy solution—the crazy priest should be removed by the Bishop, since “it is highly dangerous for an unbalanced man to have that sort of power.” The Bishop, surprisingly, disagrees, showing an unwillingness to make moral judgments of any sort (“let he who is without neurosis cast the first stone”), let alone one this specific. As the conversation progresses, the Bishop appears to be rather unconcerned about the imminent loss of traditional religious structures or even about conventional and traditional conceptions of morality. God and moralityMarcus begins to perceive the dangers of divorcing morality from a belief in a good God or a benign transcendence and realizes that although in the post-modern world it might be “cutting edge” and “intelligent” to reject the idea of God, he surely doesn’t want to live in a world in which everyone has done so.

It occurred to him now how much it mattered to him that all that business should still go on in the old way. He did not believe in the redeeming blood of Jesus, he did not believe in the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost, but he wanted other people to believe. He wanted the old structure to continue there beside him, nearby, something he could occasionally reach out and touch with his hand.

What if there truly is no God? Much worse than that, what if there is something transcendent, but it is dangerous, black, destructive? With no underlying guarantees, anything seems possible, including the worst.

As noted above, Marcus’s brother Carel is an Anglican priest who, despite the fact that he has lost his faith (or worse), has been assigned to a parish in London whose church and parish house are in partial ruin, unrestored since being bombed during the blitz in World War II. church blitzHe is a recluse, refusing to see anyone but the odd handful of persons living in his household. Marcus spends a good deal of the book trying to see him; when he finally succeeds, Carel’s soliloquy raises some of the most disturbing possibilities concerning transcendence that can be imagined. Priests have lost their faith before—in Murdoch’s novels, most of them do—but Carel is unusual in pushing his “there is no God” hypothesis to its logical conclusions. Most non-theists are like Marcus, paying lip service to the loss of familiar structures, yet naively hoping that the moral “good stuff” can be preserved and packaged in a less simplistic way. As Carel suggests, however, the truth may be too terrible to even consider.

Suppose the truth were awful, suppose it was just a black pit, or like birds huddled in the dust in a dark cupboard? Suppose only evil were real, only it was not evil since it had lost even its name? Who could face this? The philosophers have not even tried . . . And if they did perhaps, through some crack, some fissure in the surface, catch sight of that, they ran straight back to their desks, they worked harder than ever late into the night to explain that it was not so, to prove that it could not be so. you can't handle the truthThey suffered, they even died for this argument, and called it the truth.

When we believe we are searching for God, suppose we are just furiously constructing barriers between ourselves and a truth we suspect but cannot face? Perhaps the job of the philosopher and the theologian is not so much to pursue the truth as to construct better and better ways to protect us from it. This is not a matter of weakness or delusion—it’s a matter of survival. As Carel concludes:

With or without the illusion of God, goodness is impossible to us. We have been made too low in the order of things. God made it impossible that there should be true saints. But now he is gone we are not set free for sanctity. We are the prey of the angels.

Marcus has no answer for Carel. Perhaps consistent with the vision of reality he has presented, Carel ultimately commits suicide. Iris Murdoch once said that the best question that anyone can ask is “What are you afraid of?” IrisIn an interview, the question was once turned back on her by the interviewer—in response she identified her greatest fear.

I think I’m afraid of somehow finding out that it doesn’t really matter how you behave, that morality is just a superficial phenomenon. I don’t think one could find this out, it’s just a bogey; the impossibility of finding it out is very deep in moral philosophy. I don’t believe in God, but I think morality is fundamental to human life.

In other words, she is most afraid that Carel is right and Marcus is wrong. Yet she implies that perhaps it is truly impossible for a human being to believe that.

I agree. The option is always available to deny the existence of anything greater than us—it is a logically coherent position. It is also possible that the inherent human hope for goodness and justice is a firewall we create against the intrinsic evil and horror of reality. magdaBut I’m not buying it. Although I am very hesitant to say anything with certainty about God, I agree with Magda Trocme:

If there weren’t somewhere a source of hope, justice, truth, and love, we would not have rooted in us the hope of justice, truth, and love that we find in every religion and every degree of civilization. It’s that source that I call God.

Giotto lamentation

The Weight of this Sad Time

Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say. Shakespeare, King Lear

Last week I spent a couple of mornings and part of an afternoon participating in a faculty end-of-the-year workshop held annually for the honors faculty. It is always held the week after Commencement; with sabbatical just around the corner, I considered not attending this year. Cost of DiscipleshipBut the two morning seminars were on King Lear and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship, two worthy texts that should be on everyone’s top whatever list. That, along with a reasonable stipend, was enough for me to sign up.

The King Lear seminar, led by a Shakespeare scholar from the English department, was a welcome return to a text that I find both strikingly dark and strangely compelling every time I read it. I love Shakespeare and find his plays more insightful about human nature and the human condition than any other author (certainly more insightful than any philosopher I have read), but had not read this particular tragedy for a couple of years. tumblr_ma8azfhZEg1rgpruxo3_r3_1280[1]As it always does, the play blew me away, disturbed me, and left me wondering whether my colleagues might find some glimmers of hope and redemption that have always escaped me.

King Lear pushes to the limit a hypothesis that has a long and complicated pedigree: We live in a universe that is malign, at the very least indifferent, and human life within this universe is brutal, wretched, and meaningless. Furthermore, Shakespeare sets the play in an early England that as yet has not been “Christianized”—typical and familiar moralizing and redemptive language is as out of place here as it would have been in Ancient Greece or Rome. As various nasty and morally awful characters—including Lear’s two older daughters—apparently prosper from their rejection of their father, those characters with even a shred of dignity, honor, or love—including Lear’s youngest daughter—are rejected and ultimately destroyed. By the end of the play, the stage is littered with the bodies of both the good and the bad, while a handful of dazed survivors are left to pick up the pieces. Naked in a driving storm in the middle of a Scottish heath, Lear rages that human beings are nothing but “poor, bare forked animals,” living on a “great stage of fools.”imagesCAOCS0RP Lear demands an answer to the question “Is man no more than this?” The blinded Gloucester despairingly directs his accusations heavenward:

As flies to wanton boys are we to th’gods;

They kill us for their sport.

Lear 2008My colleagues and I ended two morning hours of seminar and another afternoon hour by viewing the final act of the play on screen with the 2008 version starring Ian MacKellan as Lear. It is a stark production with Beckett-like sparse staging toward the end. As character after character dies—Lear’s three daughters, the evil Edmund, and ultimately Lear himself—and the stage is littered with corpses, the play ends with Edgar’s final lines:

The weight of this sad time we must obey,

Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.

Fade to black. The seminar leader asked us for our feelings, our impressions of what we had just viewed, and for the first time in thirty years in academia I heard something I’ve never before heard when in the presence of twenty scholars: total silence. In obedience to Edward’s directive, no one felt obligated to say anything that “should” be said; at least for a minute or two, we were not professors ready to discuss the next topic to death, Auschwitzbut human beings stunned into silence by Shakespeare’s brilliant and disabling portrayal of a meaningless and hopeless world.

I was reminded of one of the final classes in my “Grace, Truth, and Freedom in the Nazi Era” colloquium this past semester. My colleague Ray was up front andeyeglasses ended the two-hour session with footage from the liberation of Auschwitz. The students were exposed to a variety of tough material, both in writing and on the screen, throughout the semester, but this particular footage was especially difficult to watch. There was no narration, no voice over, just hundreds of emaciated dead bodies stacked like so much wood, rooms filled to the ceiling with eyeglasses, hair, or shoes. Bulldozers pushing piles of bodies into a pit for burial just as they would push garbage into a pit at a landfill. suvivorsAnd perhaps most horrific of all were the close-ups on the faces of the just-liberated prisoners who were still barely alive. The haunting and empty gazes still float through my memory and probably will never leave. At the end of the several minute montage there was dead silence in the room. Ray wisely made no comment and simply turned off the computer and AV system, then began gathering his books and notes. This was the cue for the rest of us to do the same, and we left the room in silence.

This would have probably been the appropriate conclusion to the King Lear seminar the other day as well. But after what seemed like a very long silence, someone made a comment, then someone else followed up, and pretty soon we were doing what academics do in every context and setting—talking. Several people referenced the silence that preceded the talking and began to analyze what it was about both the play and the film adaptation that caused us not to say anything. speak what we feelBut with Edgar’s final lines in mind, our first reaction was most in keeping with “Speak what we feel”—except that our feelings were, at least for a few moments, deeper than words could express. Once we started putting what we felt into words, it was very easy to shift into “what we ought to say,” and the powerful moment was lost.Greenberg

Sometimes the best thing to say is nothing. And, as Irving Greenberg writes in Cloud of Smoke, Pillar of Fire, if we feel that something must be said, we need to be very careful about what it is.

The Holocaust challenges the claims of all the standards that compete for modern man’s loyalties.  Nor does it give simple, clear answers or definitive solutions.  To claim that it does is not to take the burning children seriously…Giotto lamentationLet us offer, then, as a working principle the following: No statement, theological, or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of the burning children.

Justifying My Existence

It is unsettling, even scary, to relinquish who we think we are, and scary to stop clinging to what we have and what we do. Henri Nouwen

As I picked up my bag to walk to the gym, then to the office for a few hours of work, I said “I’m off to justify my existence for the day!” The idea of such daily justification comes from my father who, when he was at home rather than on the road travelling, used to ask my brother and me as we stepped into the house after school justify“What did you do today to justify your existence on this planet?” He always had a smile on his face when he said it, but there were serious undertones to the question. The challenge to not just be a piece of furniture in the room, not just to occupy space, but to prove my worth on a daily basis has stuck with me ever since. Jeanne’s response to my announcement was to laugh and say “You don’t have to do anything to justify your existence!” I appreciate the sentiment, but I’m not so sure.

I can talk a good talk about why, despite the Protestant work ethic and stereotypical American focus on action and productivity that pervades our culture, who one is does not amount to the same thing as what one does. chittisterAs Joan Chittister writes, humility is “the strength to separate our sense of the meaning of life from what we do.” One should work to live, after all, not live to work. I am not, however, nearly as good at walking the walk. This has become more and more obvious as I move into sabbatical mode. Within a month I will no longer be a program director, something that has consumed me as a second full-time job for the past four years. I will not be a full-time teacher for the next sixteen months, uncharted territory for someone who believes he was born to be a professor. I’ve been telling everyone who would listen for several years that the biggest thing that being an administrator, first four years as department chair, then four more as a program director, has taken away from me is writing. But this is not entirely true. I actually have been writing a lot over the past almost-three-years on this blog—close to 300,000 words worth of writing (enough for three 250-or-so page books). What I have not done for close to a decade is academic writing of the sort that an academic must do in order to get promoted and tenured. Why? Because I don’t have to. Nor do I want to. button_tenurepromotionTenure and the last promotion came a long time ago, well before the last decade of administration piled on top of teaching. I no longer need to write and publish the sort of thing that one needs to write and publish in order to earn tenure and promotion, and this is a good thing since I don’t want to write that sort of thing and haven’t wanted to for some time.

What this means, going into sabbatical, is that for the first time in my professional life—actually for the first time in my adult life—the pressure is off. I’m being paid to be on sabbatical—undoubtedly a rare gift pretty much exclusive to the world of academia. And I’m not sure how to handle that. Over the past few years I have taken baby steps in the direction of trusting the world around me to show me what’s next rather than imposing my own expectations and structures on what’s next. sabbaticalBut they are only baby steps, insufficient to guide my plans for sabbatical. Beginning around this time last year I started planning for sabbatical by doing the usual things—setting up a series of appointments with our very helpful director of sponsored research, sending out proposals both for residential and non-residential sabbatical projects, and so on. For several months in late 2014 I waited to see what I would be doing and where I would be going on sabbatical. The response to all of my proposals? “Thanks, but no thanks.” Other than the lovely form rejection letters in various forms, I received no feedback other than “we don’t want to fund you doing that.” By the time the rejections arrived the spring semester had started, so other than a few “what the fuck??” moments, I didn’t have the time to think much about the implications until the past couple of weeks. I have plenty to work on and write about—three book projects, no less—but the usual routes to where that will happen and when have been dead ends. Now what?

Isaiah 6I was lector yesterday morning at church for the first time in months, and in one of those unexpected moments of synchronicity that I’ve noticed more and more frequently over the past several years my assigned Old Testament reading was one of my favorites from the Jewish scriptures, the call of Isaiah. As I read it from the lectern the story had immediate resonance. Isaiah has a vision of the divine throne room, where six-winged seraphim fly about and cry “Holy, holy, holy!” 24/7. After Isaiah expresses his utter unworthiness at being present for such a glorious spectacle, an angel takes a live coal with tongs from the altar and, laying it on Isaiah’s lips, says “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” Now you are ready, in other words. God itself asks “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Isaiah answers, “Here am I; send me.” A risky thing to do, opening oneself up to whatever might come. Isaiah’s mission starts by saying “I’m ready for whatever.” Scary business, but I’ll give it a shot.

In Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl, a survivor of Auschwitz, tells the brief story of a woman’s last hours before death. franklLying on her filthy cot in the barracks, the woman spoke briefly with Frankl.

“I am grateful that fate has hit me so hard. In my former life I was spoiled and did not take spiritual accomplishments seriously.” Pointing through the window of the hut, she said, “This tree here is the only friend I have in my loneliness.” Through that window she could see just one branch of a chestnut tree, and on the branch were two blossoms. “I often talk to this tree,” she said to me. I was startled and didn’t quite know how to take her words. Was she delirious? Did she have occasional hallucinations? Anxiously I asked her if the tree replied. “Yes.” What did it say to her? She answered, “It said to me, ‘I am here—I am here—I am life, eternal life.’”

I am here—I am life. Maybe that’s enough. At least it’s a start.

How to Be Good–A Message to the Graduates

Every commencement season I am reminded that there is one teaching related thing that I have never had the opportunity to do, something that I badly want to be able to do before I retire or die (whichever comes first—probably death). I have never been invited to give an address of any sort to the graduating seniors. academicawards[1]This is particularly annoying because on my campus, the major faculty address to the seniors, part of the academic awards ceremony on Saturday morning of graduation weekend, is delivered by the current Accinno Teaching Award winner—our “Teacher of the Year” award. This tradition began six or seven years ago, two or three years after I won the teaching award. I suspect there is some sinister plot behind this. So every year at the awards ceremony I write an impromptu address to the seniors in my head as some less deserving colleague is delivering the real faculty address. Here is this year’s version.

Provost: . . . . Please welcome Dr. Vance Morgan.

Thunderous applause

Father President, distinguished guests, faculty and staff, honored graduates and your families—thank you for this opportunity to speak with you for a few minutes. You’ll be getting a lot of advice from a lot of people this weekend–most of them significantly older than you. This morning I want to spend a few minutes offering some advice from a group of people younger than you–a bunch of sophomores–on an important moral question that will be with you for the rest of your lives: the question of how to be good.

A Polish Franciscan priest. A Lutheran pastor and theologian. A French, Jewish social activist attracted to Marxism. A French novelist and philosopher. A group of young German college students. The citizens of an isolated rural town in France. Fr.Maximilian_Kolbe_1939What do the above persons have in common? In unique and profound ways, Maximilian Kolbe, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Simone Weil, Albert Camus, the members of the White Rose, and the people of Le Chambon were witnesses to the power of the human spirit and the dignity of the human person in the face of unimaginable horror and atrocity. And these were the figures that we studied in my colloquium—“‘Love Never Fails’: Grace, Truth, and Freedom in the Nazi Era’”–during the second half of the semester just ended.

During the first half of the colloquium, my colleague with whom I co-taught the colloquium and I delved with our students deeply into the dark side of the Nazis. Perhaps even more disturbing than the horrors they perpetuated were the various techniques people, with partial or even full knowledge of the atrocities, used to collaborate with, to deliberately turn away from, or to ignore evil. As we considered in the second half of the course examples of persons who did otherwise, who responded directly through words and actions to what was happening all around them, we found that the motivations for and manners of response were as varied as those responding.  BonhoefferSome had religious motivations, while the response of others was political in nature. Some lost their lives, while the activities of others were protected by distance and obscurity.

During the last seminar of the semester, I gave my eighteen students the following task: Suppose, based on what we have learned this semester, that we wanted to write a handbook or guide for future generations on how to preserve and perpetuate goodness in the midst of evil. Are there common techniques or skills that the people we studied this semester invariably relied on as they responded to evil? If so, what are they? The students worked on this in small groups for twenty minutes or so, then reported back to the larger group with their results. Here, in no particular order, are some of my students’ suggestions concerning how to preserve one’s character and integrity in the face of severe challenges.

Know who you are: It is very easy to become overwhelmed by the apparently monumental task of facing up to systematic evil and wrongdoing. In such situations, the only reasonable response appears to be “what can I do? I am only one person—I can’t make a difference.” But my students and I learned this semester that moral character begins with understanding who I am and what I am capable of. Good SamaritanI cannot change the world, but I can do something about what is right in front of me. Moral character does not require moral heroism. Consider the story of the Good Samaritan, a story frequently referenced by various people we studied. The Good Samaritan was just a guy on a trip who stumbled across an injustice that he could do something about. His response to the man dying in the ditch was not motivated by philosophy, religion, politics, or personal gain—it was simply a human response to human need. That not only is enough, it can be miraculous. As the Jewish saying goes, “he who saves one life saves the entire world.”

Simplicity: One of my typical roles as a philosophy professor is to convince my students to dig deeper, because things are always more complicated than they seem. Le ChambonBut one of the continuing themes of this semester was that those who respond effectively to evil and wrongdoing have often reduced moral complexities to manageable proportions. The villagers of Le Chambon believed that human need must be addressed. Period. They also believed that all human life is precious, from Jewish refugees to Nazi officers. Period. The students of the White Rose believed that their country had been stolen from them and they had to help take it back. Period. Maximilian Kolbe lived his life believing that God, Jesus and the Blessed Mother love everyone. Period. In response to complaints that “things aren’t that simple,” the consistent word this semester was “sometimes they are.”

Some things are more important than life. I have often asked students over the years “what things are worth dying for?” more or less as a thought experiment. But for the people we studied this semester, this was not an academic exercise. During the first half of the semester we often saw people choosing not to act or turning the other way because they were afraid for their own lives. More often than not, my students were willing to give such people at least a partial pass, arguing that self-preservation is the strongest instinct that human beings possess. Then we encountered a series of people who proved that not to be true. Just as Socrates sharply drew a contrast between “living” and “living well” more than two millennia ago, my students and I encountered a series of counterexamples to the notion that self-preservation trumps everything else. In a variety of ways, those who responded to evil demonstrated that some things are more important than guaranteeing ones continuing survival. indexAs Socrates argued, some lives are not worth living. A life preserved by refusing to do whatever one can to resist evil is one of those lives.

Spirituality: Any number of the persons we studied placed their understanding of themselves and the world around them within a framework that included something greater than ourselves. My students chose to call this “spirituality” rather than “faith,” because many of the persons we studied were not religious in any traditional sense. But all were convinced that we human beings are answerable to something greater than ourselves, ranging from the divine to a responsibility to create a better future. Which points toward another technique for the perpetuation of goodness . . .

Look toward the other: One of the most important keys to preserving goodness in the presence of evil is that ability to focus my attention on something other than myself. Iris Murdoch defined love asYoung Simone “the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real,” and from the villagers of Le Chambon through Maximilian Kolbe to the students of the White Rose, my students and I regularly observed persons who had incorporated this ability into their daily life. One of the greatest hindrances to goodness is what Simone Weil called “the avaricious tentacles of the self.” There is no greater technique for escaping these tentacles than cultivating a sharp awareness of the reality of what is not me.

Don’t be afraid: In The Plague, Albert Camus suggests that most human evil is the result of ignorance. CamusAlthough my students resonated with this notion, they concluded on the basis of their studies that in situations of moral emergency and stress, fear is a greater problem than ignorance. There is a reason why the first thing that an angel usually says in Scripture when unexpectedly dropping into some human’s reality is “Fear not,” since we often respond to the unknown, the strange and the overwhelming with fear. The message of the human angels we studied together was “Don’t be afraid to expose your small spark of goodness in a world of darkness. It might just change a life—maybe yours.”

Perhaps the most remarkable feature of these common techniques is their shared accessibility. Self-knowledge, simplicity, the ability to recognize what is truly important, spiritual awareness, courage—these are not magical moral weapons available only to saints and heroes. I can do this. You can do this. But only if we start now. Good habits can only be developed through repetition; we only become skillful wielding the weapons of the spirit through practice. Let’s get started.

The Sun and the Other Stars

RuaneWith the end of the current semester, we have finished the second academic year in our beautiful and impressive still-new Ruane Center for the Humanities. On the west side of the stone entryway is carved a memorable saying from the Gospel of John: You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. On the top of the opposite east side of the entryway is the equally memorable closing line from Paridiso, the final book of Dante’s The Divine Comedy: Ruane DanteThe Love which moves the sun and the other stars. In my estimation the choice of this passage for such an exalted position on the building is controversial—when the building was still in the planning stage, I made the tongue-in-cheek argument that nothing more appropriate could be inscribed on the front of a classroom building than what is written over the gates of Hell in Canto III of Inferno, the first book in Dante’s masterwork: Abandon hope, all ye who enter here. But I lost the argument and had to settle for printing that line off and taping it on my office door. It must have worked, because very few students come to visit me in my office.

Dante’s vision at the end of Paridiso is the climax of an agonizing journey through Hell, then Purgatory, and finally Heaven—his capstone experience, strangely enough for a guy who is never at a loss for words, is one that he struggles mightily to convey. Beatific visionOne gets the impression that words fail him and his linear thought process is dissolved as he is subsumed into his long-awaited encounter with the Divine. But I’ve never found Dante’s vision compelling, simply because it’s just that. A vision. And it’s so Catholic, with multitudes of saints, angels, and Mary swirling around in a choreographed dance. I actually resonate more fully with Dante and his guide Virgil as they pick their way through the horrors of Hell and the trials of Purgatory—these portions of the journey I can resonate with because they remind me of the world I actually live in with all of its contradictory beauty and ugliness. That’s the world in which I have been embedded all semester with my students as we explored grace, truth and freedom in the Nazi era, finding glimmers of hope and nuggets of wisdom in the middle of the worst that humanity can devise.bonhoeffer

We spent our last week of the semester with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Protestant pastor and theologian who, imprisoned in Berlin’s Tegel Prison for more than a year because of his involvement in a failed attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler, found himself in his isolation fending off despair and realizing that whatever God is, God is none of the things he had always thought and taught. In letters to his best friend Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer put his fears, his concerns, his hopes, and his life itself on display in language that is shocking and disturbing in its directness. I asked my seminar students to consider, then discuss, letters from prisontwo passages in a letter from Bonhoeffer to Bethge in their intellectual notebooks and an on-line discussion forum.

What is bothering me incessantly is the question of what Christianity really is, or indeed who Christ really is, for us today. The time when people could be told everything by means of words, whether theological or pious, is over, and so is the time of inwardness and conscience—and that means the time of religion in general.

“The time of Christianity is over.” These words confused my students to say the least—“I am shocked that a minister of God could say such a thing,” one of them wrote. But Bonhoeffer’s point is that none of the old formulas or descriptions work anymore, not in a world in which millions of human beings are disappearing as smoke from death camp chimneys. As unsettling as this passage was for my students, the second passage from Bonhoeffer shook them to their core.

So our coming of age leads us to a true recognition of our situation before God. God would have us know that we must live as people who manage our lives without God. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us. The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually.

God wants us to live in the world as if God does not exist, Bonhoeffer writes. What can this possibly mean? A number of students observed in their notebooks how sad they were that Bonhoeffer had lost his faith. To which I commented, “This is not a man who has lost his faith. flossenburgThis is a man for whom faith has come to mean something entirely different than you are accustomed to.”

A few short months after he wrote this letter, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed in Flossenburg Prison, just a handful of weeks before Germany surrendered to the Allies. Far from losing his faith, Bonhoeffer exemplifies a willingness to let faith evolve rather than crumble in the face of the greatest and most intense challenges. Shortly before his death he wrote a poem entitled “Who Am I?” in his notebook which ends in a place that provides hope for all persons of faith.

Weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,

Faint, and ready to say farewell to it all. . . .

Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.

Whoever I am, you know, O God, I am yours!

A couple of weeks ago as I was driving to the 8:00 early show at church I caught a few minutes of Krista Tippett’s show “On Being” on NPR. Her guest was Margaret Wertheim, a physicist described in the promo as “a passionate translator of the beauty and relevance of scientific questions.”

http://onbeing.org/program/margaretwertheim-the-grandeur-and-limits-of-science/7472

Toward the end of the conversation Tippett notes that Wertheim, who was raised Catholic, has been described in the media as an atheist. “Are you an atheist?” Tippett asked. WertheimWertheim’s response brings us full circle back to Dante.

I’d like to put it this way: I don’t know that I believe in the existence of God in the Catholic sense. But my favorite book is the Divine Comedy. And at the end of the Divine Comedy, Dante pierces the skin of the universe and comes face to face with the love that moves the sun and the other stars. I believe that there is a love that moves the sun and the other stars. I believe in Dante’s vision. And so, in some sense, perhaps I could be said to believe in God. And I think part of the problem with the concept of, “Are you an atheist or not?” is that our conception of what divinity means has become so trivialized and banal that I think it’s almost impossible to answer the question without dogma.

I love Wertheim’s answer because it is infused with Bonhoeffer’s energy. Dogmas and religious formulas will always fail because God is bigger than that. Seeking the love that moves the sun and the other stars will always take us to places we do not expect, places of beauty and darkness, a search energized by a faith that cannot be lost.

How Do I Get There?

I was at a conference last Friday and Saturday to present a paper for the first time in five years, an opportunity to connect with old friends and colleagues while being reminded of why I really don’t like academic conferences (a blog post about that coming soon). The conference was held in a room that clearly had once been a chapel, containing a huge, round stained glass window on the front wall.VANCEPC - WIN_20150424_083221

From a distance I could not figure out the theme of the window–its central figure was a young man in full medieval armor, so I figured it was probably St. George without the dragon. Upon closer inspection, I read the text on the banner underneath the soldier: “Enter thou into the joy of thy Lord.” “Oh my God!” I thought as I returned in memory to my childhood–“that’s Christian from Pilgrim’s Progress!”

As I followed the various scenes around Christian clockwise around the window starting at the bottom, I observed Christian’s struggle against various tempters and opponents on his journey from despair to heaven. PilgrimThis book, with beautiful illustrations, was a staple of my childhood home, ranking in my mind equally with the omnipresent picture Bible. My mother read it with me frequently–I’m pretty sure I hadn’t thought of it in forty years. But it came flooding back to me as the conference began–Pilgrim’s Progress introduced my at a very early age, more effectively than anything in scripture, to the most basic human questions that have obsessed me my whole life. Where do I come from? Where am I going? And, most pressingly, how do I get there?

220px-Dead_poets_society[1]In my all-time favorite movie, Dead Poet’s Society, Mr. Keating teaches an important lesson about non-conformity to his students with a brief experiment. Bringing his young charges out of the classroom into a nearby courtyard, Keating directs three of the students to start walking around the perimeter. Although they start off at a different pace, soon all three are marching in lock step, with Keating singing an impromptu Marine-style tune and the other students clapping in accompaniment. Keating’s point is about conformity. Given the opportunity to walk uniquely and independently, the boys choose instead to fall into step with each other. Keating then evokes Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken ” to introduce the alternative of individual risk and choice.

IMV5BMTc2MzgwNjAzNV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNTUyNjQzMQ@@._V1_SY317_CR7,0,214,317_[1]n another of my favorite movies, Young Frankenstein, director Mel Brooks inserts a hilarious version of a visual joke that’s older than the hills. After entering the Transylvanian castle where he is employed, Igor, played by Marty Feldman, says “walk this way” to Gene Wilder’s Dr. Frankenstein, then sets off with a cane-assisted gait, dragging his lame leg and hunchbacked self down the stairs. Frankenstein follows him down the stairs with precisely the same limping and awkward gait, until after a few steps Igor turns around and says, “No, I mean follow me!”

The right way to walk, the best road to take, is on my mind a regularly as a teacher and just a normal human being. I frequently have the opportunity to introduce freshman students to Rene DescartesFrans_Hals_-_Portret_van_René_Descartes[1], one of the most—arguably the most—influential philosophers in the Western tradition. I wrote my dissertation on Descartes twenty-five years ago and was told by my director that, at that time at least, more secondary literature had been written on Descartes than any other Western philosopher, including Plato and Aristotle. After his education was finished, Descartes in his early twenties decided to see the world. As many young men of his time, he chose to do this by signing up as a mercenary soldier for a local political power-broker, in Descartes’ case the Duke of Bavaria. One night while on campaign in the winter of 1619, Rene sought refuge and warmth in a small, stove-heated room.220px-Fouday-Poêle[1] That night he had three dreams or visions that changed his life. In the third dream, he opened a book of poetry and read the following line from the Roman poet Ausonias: Quod vitae sectabor iter? What path in life should I follow? Descartes’ self-interpretation of this dream produced his lifelong project—the unification of science and, ultimately, all knowledge on a foundation of unshakeable certainty. What path in life should I follow?

It is a great question, perhaps the best question, to get nineteen-year-old freshmen to consider. Strangely enough, I have found over the past few years that it is an equally important question for a now fifty-nine year old guy to ask.Marquette University Old Postcard[1] In many ways my professional path has been clear from the moment I chose in my early thirties to major in philosophy in graduate school and do my PhD at a Catholic university (to the dismay of my professors and mentors in my Master’s program at a secular state university). Twenty-five years later I have achieved some success as an academic scholar, great satisfaction in the classroom on a daily basis, and have never regretted walking down this particular academic professor path. But I’ve learned more and more over the past few years that there are many paths more important than the professional one. By defining myself for years by what I do, I found it very easy to forget about figuring out who I am.micah_prophet[1] As Christian found out in Pilgrim’s Progress, the path to wholeness and integrity as a human being is fraught with far more pitfalls and dangers than any path to professional success. The prophet Micah tells us that all God wants is for us to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God. But what is the nature of this walk? What paths am I to take? These questions have become more and more pressing.

Yesterday was “Good Shepherd Sunday” with sheep/shepherd readings from both the Gospels and the Psalms. Psalm 23 is all about paths. We are told that the Lord our shepherd leads us in paths of righteousness and even is with us in our darkest hours, as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death. Such a familiar text, however, can breed, if not contempt, at least complacency. Shepherds and sheep evoke a pastoral and peaceful image,sheep1[1] but very few of us have any knowledge of what the daily lives of shepherds and sheep are like. I got a peek into this life once over twenty years ago while we were living in Milwaukee.  Milwaukee is a city of festivals, with every ethnic group imaginable getting its own weekend and festival. During a celebration of all things Scottish, Jeanne and I were with the boys at one of the many large parks that Milwaukee has to offer for Scottish Fest. The weather was appropriate, drizzly and foggy with bone-chilling dampness.

One of the events that day was a demonstration of sheep herding. Upon being let out of the penned enclosure in which they were being held, a flock of forty or fifty sheep immediately scattered to the four winds, running into the surrounding residential neighborhood faster than I ever imagined sheep could move their fat, wool-laden selves. The shepherd remained standing in the now-sheepless park, with two small border collies at his side, as residents of the surrounding streets wondered where the hell the sheep in their back yards came from. Then at a signal from the shepherd, the border collies leaped into action. After they disappeared into the neighborhood like lightning bolts, we could hear the dogs occasionally barking in the distance. Border Collie, 9 months old, rounding sheepWithin a few minutes, sheep started appearing from various directions, with the border collies running manically back and forth behind them, nipping at their heels and talking trash as only a dog can. Before long, all of the sheep were back in the pen and the border collies returned to the shepherd’s side. He bowed in acknowledgement of our applause, even though his four-legged buddies had done all of the work.

As a youngster I always bristled at the frequent Biblical comparison of human beings to sheep, because I knew (or had read at least) that sheep were both smelly and stupid. I appreciated our rector pointing out yesterday that in ancient times, sheep were highly regarded sources of milk, wool and companionship, only becoming mutton once they became too old to provide any of the other stuff. I still resist the analogy, though, and believe that there are many more fruitful paths available to me than to a sheep. 5800660559_37c6d20f29_z[1]But it is comforting to know that there is divine companionship and guidance on whatever path I find myself on, as well as to know that if I listen, all of those paths lead home to God.

Two years ago, a couple of weeks after the end of the semester, I headed for the Benedictine New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur, California for a week of silence, meditation, centering, writing, and sampling of monk-made fruit cake (their specialty, apparently). I heard about the place from an Episcopanapa_valley[1]l priest I met the year before at a “Wisdom school workshop.” His parish is in the California wine country; someday I hope to have a chance to connect with him. Strange where unexpected paths might show up—“Yea though I walk through the valley of Napa . . .” My week at the hermitage was perhaps the most fruitful week of writing I have ever experienced. I may not be a sheep, but I’m happy to take whatever guidance that happens to come my way.

The Easter Mouse

palinA couple of years ago, just in time for the Christmas holiday season, a new book by Sarah Palin was published. Entitled Good Tidings and Great Joy, with the subtitle A Happy Holiday IS a Merry Christmas, the book was promoted, among other things, as “a fun, festive, thought-provoking book, which will encourage all to see what is possible when we unite in defense of our faith and ignore the politically correct Scrooges who would rather take Christ out of Christmas.” Every fall in recent years various conservative voices have called for like-minded persons to “take Christmas back” from various elements and constituencies seeking to secularize and remove Christ from it. This strikes me as a relatively recent phenomenon. My upbringing was as conservative Christian as it comes, yet my family had no problem mixing the baby Jesus in a manger with other not-so-Jesus-like features of the holidays, such as the year I got both a BB gun and a G.I. Joe doll (but don’t call it a doll) under the tree. The violent presents must not have had much of an effect. I do not own a gun nor have I shot one in at least thirty years. I’m glad the Christmas police never came to my house—we would have been in trouble.

But that’s nothing compared to the trouble we would have been in had the Easter police ever showed up at the wrong time. Easter is a confusing holiday for a kid, much more confusing than Christmas. Christmas is dependable—it comes on the same day in December every year. But Easter is confusedly flexible—it can show up on any given Sunday between the middle of March and late April.6a00d8341bf7f753ef00e55034926a8833-800wi I learned as an adult that there is actually a method to when Easter occurs. Easter falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon occurring either on or after the vernal (spring) equinox. Although this formula sounds very new-agey and smacks of Druids and such, it apparently was established at the Council of Nicea in 325. No telling what a bunch of theologians and bishops will do with too much time on their hands. All I knew as a kid was that Easter didn’t seem to know when to show up, except that it was always on a Sunday—with either snow banks or flowers outside, depending on the year.

I also knew what Easter was supposed to be about. Jesus was dead and now he isn’t any more. But my real interest was in various not-so-Jesus-like accoutrements that went with Easter—bunnies, Easter baskets, chocolate eggs (crème-filled or hollow) and, my ultimate obsession and downfall, jelly beans. My mother, very much like a Cadbury egg, was hard (or at least Swedish and stoic) on the outside and soft on the inside. 400px_JesusBunny_xlargeShe talked a good game about Easter being about Jesus and not about bunnies, eggs, and candy—but my brother and I knew that every Easter morning before we headed off to church would be an early spring version of Christmas morning. Each of us would find an Easter basket filled with our favorite sweets, as well as a toy or two. Mine was usually a small stuffed animal, facilitating my inexplicable and very strong stuffed animal obsession. One Easter, my mother said that in addition to the Easter basket, she had hidden two solid chocolate rabbits, one for each of us, somewhere in the house—it was up to each of us to find ours.

My brother found his within five minutes or so slid out of sight but within reach behind the piano. But I could not find mine. I’m usually pretty good at this—Jeanne will attest that I am almost always the “finder of lost or misplaced things” in our house. chocolate bunnyBut I could not find my freaking chocolate rabbit. It came time to head off for church and my mother would have caved and revealed where she had hidden it, except that—typically—she could not remember. I knew better than to suggest that I stay home and find my chocolate rabbit while the rest of the family went to church, but I was not thinking “He is Risen!” thoughts while at the service. I was wondering “where the fuck is my chocolate bunny??” (or something like that—the “f” word had not made it into even my inner vocabulary yet).

The chocolate rabbit was never found. To his great consternation, my mother made my brother share his rabbit with me. Several weeks later, though, we found out what had happened to my bunny. As I helped my mother move the massive console record player in the corner of the living room so she could clean underneath, we discovered the box that had contained my chocolate rabbit, empty with a large hole chewed in the bottom left corner. imagesCALFEA3OMy bunny had been confiscated and eaten by one of the several mice who lived in our old barn of a house. We could hear them running behind the walls on occasion. My father set mousetraps in various closets and the furnace room on a regular basis; one of my older brother’s jobs was to check the traps occasionally and discard any unlucky mouse with a broken back that he discovered. I hoped at the time that the freaking mouse who stole my bunny was one of the ones caught by a trap, or at least that the mouse died of a sugar and chocolate overdose. But the Easter Mouse has become iconic in my personal mythology over the years, representing the continuing pull of sacred and secular that has evolved from a confusing tension as a child into an endless source of fascination, ideas, and challenges for growth (as well as blog posts!) as an adult. news_closeup_santamangr_lgSanta Claus or the baby Jesus? Santa’s elves or the angel Gabriel? Rabbits or an empty tomb? Jelly beans or unleavened bread?

As I sat toward the back of a full Trinity Episcopal Church for Easter Sunday service last Sunday, I was reminded of something provocative that a good friend of mine once said: “The heart of Christianity is what you believe about the stories. Do you believe the stories are true or don’t you? Yes or No?” In a slightly more formal way, New Testament scholar NTWright 250wN. T. Wright has the following to say about the stories:

The practical, theological, spiritual, ethical, pastoral, political, missionary, and hermeneutical implications of the mission and message of Jesus differ radically depending upon what one believes happened at Easter.N. T. Wright

Indeed they do—but beyond confirming that I believe the Easter story is true in the sense that “these stories are true—and some of them actually happened,” I not very interested in debates concerning the historical veracity of the foundational stories of Christianity. Personally, I’ll take the Incarnation over the Resurrection as the seminal truth of my Christian faith. But here’s what I do know to be true about Easter:

  • I know that resurrection is real because I’ve experienced it.
  • Easter is a reminder that death does not have the last word, that life always springs from what has been left for dead.
  • New life is often unexpected, inexplicable and unpredictable. I don’t know what the dozens of little green things that have sprouted up throughout my back yard and flower beds are (I’ve never seen them in previous springs), but they are alive. downy woodpeckerI don’t know what the little downy woodpecker hammering away on the vinyl siding of our neighbor’s house this morning was thinking, but it was life in action.

As the newly sighted man said when interrogated about the person who healed his blindness, “I don’t know about Jesus but one thing I do know—I was blind and now I see.” My life narrative will always include the language of incarnation and resurrection—that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. But this I know for certain: New life is for real.

crucifixion[1]

Actually, He Died

Three Christmas Eves ago, Jeanne, Justin and I were invited to share dinner with a friend from work and her family, which includes two precocious and very active children. On display was a beautiful crèche, surrounded by all sorts of interesting items—who knew, for instance, that there was a duck and an elephant (both roughly the same size as the baby) at the manger? My friend is from Italy; her mother annually sends new additions to the crèche scene from the homeland, often forgetting the comparative size of the items she sent in previous years. My friend’s five-year-old daughter introduced Justin to the various characters in a monologue interrupted only by a few confirming comments.

And these are some shepherds, those are goats and sheep, that’s a dog a turkey and a cow, these are some angels, and that’s the baby Jesus.

Oh, really?

Yes. Actually, he died.

Yes he did, as Good Friday somberly reminds us. It is traditional for Christians, anticipating the end of the story and what will happen in three days, to attempt a symbolic descent into the depths of pain and devastating disappointment. But there is no evidence that any person among Jesus’s family and followers expected that he would rise from the dead. The crucifixion was an unmitigated disaster and they fled in fear for their lives. Some hid in anonymous locations to escape arrest. Some simply went home. The bravest among them planned to show respect for the dead body in traditional ways. Various hopes and dreams were shattered. As the travelers to Emmaus said, “We had hoped that it was He who was going to redeem Israel.” But actually, he died. End of story—time to move on.

The idea of a suffering and dying God is not new—there are many traditions supported by myths and stories of a divinity suffering and dying for various reasons. But this story is so intimately personal, so representative of the crushed hopes and dreams, the inescapable pain and suffering, that are fundamentally part of the human experience. That’s what makes Good Friday so poignant and what made it so devastating for those who were there, those who had tied their lives to this man. He seemed to be something more, but turned out to be the same as everyone else—human, limited, subject to suffocating power and injustice, to the random events that ultimately shape each of our stories. We had hoped—and he died.

Simone Weil suggests that the entire story of redemption is contained in the Incarnation and the Crucifixion. If the story ended with Jesus executed as a criminal and dead in a tomb, we still would have reason to believe in a God of love. Our very existence, as well as the existence of the reality we inhabit, is evidence of God’s choice to create in order to love. The story of a God who becomes fully human, who lives a life in time subject to all things each human being is subject to, including suffering, pain, loss, tragedy, injustice, and death serves to drive the point deeper. No supernatural cure for suffering is offered in this story, no promise that God will take pain and loss away. Rather a supernatural use for suffering is offered. Isaiah promises that the Messiah will be called “Emanuel—God with us.” Good Friday reveals just how far the divine chooses to go with us—into the depths of despair and death.

I saw a poster recently with a dark twist on a familiar saying. “It is always darkest just before—it goes pitch black.” And God is there.

despairdemotivator[1]

Your Heart’s Desire

fortune cookie“This thing better have good news in it,” I said as I unwrapped my P. F. Chang’s fortune cookie. And it did.

You will receive your heart’s desire

“Great,” I thought. “I wonder what the hell that is.

It had not been a good day. That morning I had received a rejection letter from the ##### Foundation to whom I had applied for sabbatical funding last fall. In typical rejection letter style, I was informed that “We received 76 applications and awarded 10 grants. The quality of the grant proposals made the work of the selection committee challenging indeed. I regret to inform you . . . blah, blah, blah and so on.” sabbatical proposalI’m surprised they didn’t add “Sorry for the inconvenience,” since that phrase has been on mind lately.

Sorry for the Inconvenience

This sucked big time because of the two funding proposals I sent out last fall, this was the one I thought I had the much better shot at. The other proposal involves a semester residency at a think-tank on the campus of a prestigious university who shall remain nameless but whose name rhymes with “Voter Game.” The email I received from the think-tank confirming receipt of my full proposal application contained the following throw-away line at the end: “Please note that ***** Fellowships are very competitive, with past annual acceptance rates of 4 to 9%.” Nice.

I do not handle rejection well—not that I’ve had a lot of it in my career. I have never been an adjunct professor. Both of my teaching positions have been tenure track. Both times that I actually got an on-campus interview I got the job. My ascent of the tenure and promotion ladder had only one easily correctable glitch. I have spent twenty-one years teaching at the same college, loving every minute of those years (or at least 95% of the minutes). Three books, a number of articles, a teaching award, two significant administrative posts—I'm OkayI’m not writing this to impress anyone, but rather to illustrate my inner dialogue every time I do get rejected. I immediately start trying to convince myself that I’m really okay, despite the fact that the ##### Foundation did not deem my sabbatical project worth spending a dime on.

These are the times when I am grateful both for my training in classical music and for being forced to memorize lots of verses from the Bible in my growing up years. As soon as I read the cookie’s promise that I will receive my heart’s desire, my memory tapes started playing a song I don’t believe I had thought of in years, perhaps decades. It is a solo from Felix Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah, with the seemingly appropriate (but very difficult to actually do) title “O Rest in the Lord.” I hate it when this happens, because the last thing I felt like doing that day was waiting or resting. My heart’s desire is to have funding for my sabbatical project, and what felixI considered to be my most likely source of that funding just said “thanks for playing, but no.” So “rest in the Lord, wait patiently for him, and he shall give thee thy heart’s desires?” Whatever—I don’t think so.

Mendelssohn’s Elijah is a dramatic musical treatment of various episodes from Elijah’s life as described in the Jewish scriptures, including his getting to ride in a flaming chariot to heaven once his prophesying work was over. In Part One of the oratorio Elijah has one of the greatest and most spectacular successes any prophet of God ever has or will experience. In a high stakes contest with the prophets of Baal on top of Mount Carmel, God has shown up in impressive fashion, as Elijah calls down fire that consumes the sacrifice, the wood on the altar, the stones that the altar is made out of, and the water surrounding it.elijah All this after five hundred prophets of Baal failed to arouse even a spark or a whiff of smoke out of their god after hours of praying, chanting, dancing, and self-mutilation. The people fall on their faces and cry “The Lord, He is God! The Lord, He is God!” In the exhilarating glow of spectacular success, Elijah has the five hundred prophets of Baal taken down the mountain to a brook and executed.

But then King Ahab reports to his wife, Queen Jezebel—a woman who in terms of evil and just plain nastiness puts Lady Macbeth to shame—what has happened to her prophets and everything changes. Jezebel sends a message to Elijah saying “So let the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by tomorrow about this time.” elijah and angelBy the beginning of Part Two, Elijah is fleeing for his life into the wilderness. Exhausted, he eventually collapses into a fetal position under a broom tree and has a classic drama queen moment: “It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” And for once, God does something practical. While Elijah sleeps, an angel makes him breakfast; when Elijah stirs, the angel serves him the meal, then entertains him by singing a lovely setting of Psalm 37—which three thousand years or so later makes it into Mendelssohn’s Elijah as “O Rest in the Lord.”

Mendelssohn’s text rearranges a few of the verses from Psalm 37, but captures the point perfectly. For those who are fretting and stressed about what the future holds, the Psalmist provides a set of simple promises.

Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.

Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him, and he will act.

Be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for him;

Do not fret over those who prosper in their way,

Over those who carry out evil devices.

Although this text is steeped in a religious perspective that I became familiar with before I learned to walk, the Psalmist’s advice sounds remarkably like what the ancient Stoics tell us—be clear about what is in your control and what is not. Don’t waste energy trying to control the latter and create your moral and spiritual home out of the former. What I can control is how I will respond to what the largely uncontrollable world hands me—disappointment, dashed hopes, unexpected opportunities, and a hell of a lot of the mundane, daily grind. The verbs in Psalm 37 are telling: trust, commit, be still, be patient, don’t worry, and take delight. These are the core of a life of centeredness and peace—something available even when things don’t go my way.Psalm 37

As I venture into the last third of my years on earth, I realize that I have often received my heart’s desire, and it almost never has been what I would have predicted. I’m not so sure I even know what my heart’s desire is going forward, but I do want to tune my inner receptors more and more carefully so that I will recognize it when it crosses my radar screen. I have had two sabbaticals in my career so far. I wrote a book during the first, and the second changed my life. Even a disappointing letter from ##### Foundation can’t deter a new heart’s desire from wandering into my life during this upcoming one. I just wish I knew what it looks like.

lent_card[1]

Beauty for Ashes, or Why Lent is a Bad Idea

Last Sunday as New England was enjoying the latest entry in the blizzard of the week trend that started in late January, I noticed a couple of Catholic colleagues on Facebook angsting over what to do about Mass in the middle of a snowstorm. Their Bishop had apparently sent out a cryptic “mass is important but be safe” message–what to do? “You could be an Episcopalian and not worry about it,” I commented, then wondered (to myself) “What would they do if there was a blizzard on Ash Wednesday? How deep would the drifts have to get to deter a faithful Catholic from receiving their yearly imposition of ashes? images[1]Which made me think about a post from about a year ago–the ruminations of a non-Catholic on Ash Wednesday.

One sunny morning in September 1983, when I was struggling in my late twenties with serious financial problems, a failing marriage, and a general malaise both spiritual and physical, I wandered into a Sunday morning service at Saint Matthew’s Episcopal Cathedral in Laramie, Wyoming. In a rush of emotional response to the beautiful organ, the stately procession of choir, crucifer, deacon and priest from back to front, and the overwhelming expressions of welcome from dozens of strangers, I felt that I had stumbled into a home whose existence I had not been aware of but for which I had been longing my whole life.

Over the succeeding weeks and months Saint Matthew’s became a life-preserver in more ways than oneseason1_scale[1]—no wonder I jumped into the strange and wonderful world of all things Episcopalian and the liturgical calendar with the enthusiasm and abandon of a true convert. My enthusiasm and commitment deepened as I experienced Advent for the first time, as Christmas liturgies framed the holidays, and as Epiphany revealed Jesus’ coming out party and early ministry in new ways. ash-wednesday11[1]Then Ash Wednesday happened. I remember it well. I regularly attended the 7:00 AM morning prayer run by lay people, but this morning the Dean was there. We went to a place in the prayer-book I had never seen before and proceeded through the most depressing liturgy ever. I found myself in the aisle queuing up to receive ashes. As Dean Mobley traced a cross with his ash-covered finger on my forehead and said “Vance, remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” I thought “This time you’ve gone too far, Morgan. This is just too weird.” I washed the ashes off my forehead as soon as I got home, convinced that I was never going to do that again.

Marsue-hed-shot[1]I related this thirty-plus-year-old story two years ago just before the evening Ash Wednesday service to Marsue, rector of the Episcopal church Jeanne and I are involved with, one of my best friends, and the closest thing I have to a spiritual adviser. I had not planned to go—just observing dozens of people walking around with ashes on their foreheads on my Catholic college campus was sufficient Ash Wednesday experience for me. But as I was settling in after yet another eleven-hour workday to eat dinner while watching first Chris Matthews, then a Netflix video before going to bed, Jeanne reminded me that she had been scheduled as chalice bearer at the 7:00 PM Ash Wednesday service. “You don’t have to go,” she said, but it was clear that she wanted me to. So I agreed to go, after making it very clear that I did not intend to get any ashes. In response to my story, Marsue laughed and asked “weren’t you jealous of the Catholic kids in the neighborhood when you were growing up who got ashes on Ash Wednesday? I was!” My response was that there were no Catholic kids in my neighborhood growing up. And there certainly weren’t any within range of our Baptist church. Marsue headed to the back of the church to process to the front with the choir and with Jeanne, looking angelic in her white robe. After the procession, it was clear that the folks up front significantly outnumbered us regular folks in the pews.

collegeville-inst[1]My most memorable Lent occurred in 2009 during the first half of my four-month sabbatical stay at an ecumenical institute in Collegeville, Minnesota. I had arrived in the middle of January; by the time Lent began I was joining the monks at St. John’s Abbey every day for noon prayer; by the time it ended I was reading and praying with them three times a day.003 (2) The internal adjustments, changes and growth that began during those weeks were unexpected and appear to be permanent. And they had nothing to do with it being Lent—that just was the part of the calendar in which we happened to be. I don’t remember the monks doing anything particularly different during Lent or the Abbey being decorated (or not) with Lent in mind. I’m sure there were weekly or daily Stations of the Cross events, but I did not participate, having decided many years earlier that this was another practice that was “too weird” and “going too far.” The internal work and change was so slow as to be almost imperceptible, only noticeable when other people told me that I was different than when I had arrived a few weeks earlier. It literally only occurs to me now that this began during a Lenten season.primary-merton[1]

The idea of Lent—a time in which persons of faith are challenged to give something up or take something on as a sign of renewed or deeper commitment to God—bothers me. I agree with Thomas Merton, who wrote that “The only trouble is that in the spiritual life there are no tricks and there are no shortcuts. Those who imagine that they can discover spiritual gimmicks and put them to work for themselves usually ignore God’s will and his grace.” And Lent—a time set aside to “get serious” about faith in practice—can easily turn into such a gimmick. lent_card[1]I can give up anything for forty days, but whatever I choose to sacrifice, unless it is simply frivolous (I know someone once who claimed he was going to give up celibacy for Lent), is something that I should probably consider giving up for good. Whatever I choose to take on for forty days with the intent of becoming a temporarily better person is, if I choose to be serious about my choice, something that I should undoubtedly seek to establish as a permanent part of my life.

Of all the things that have remained with me from that Collegeville Lent, the most important is that the life of faith, the life of seeking God, is incremental and daily. The liturgical calendar provides a different color and atmosphere for this daily process: hope and expectation for Advent, self-reflection for Lent, joy for Easter and so on. But hope, reflection and joy (and a whole bunch of other things) need to be part of my daily travels with the divine. Dropping bad habits and attitudes cannot wait until Lent, and neither can the addition of new habits and attitudes that my commitment to the life of faith calls for.

And oh yeah, I did get in line and receive ashes from Marsue two years ago, partly becausebeautyforashes[1] I did not want to be the only person in the building who didn’t. But more than thirty years after my first Ash Wednesday experience, with birthday number fifty-nine coming in a couple of weeks, a reminder that I am dust and will return to dust before long is not a bad thing. The brevity and fragility of it all makes God’s presence in the world and in us all the more remarkable. There is beauty in these ashes, a beauty to be embraced anew every morning.