Category Archives: Benedictines

Pope Ivan–Remembering a Mennonite Catholic

Monday morning–early. The 30th Street Amtrak station in Philadelphia is not the sort of place I normally find myself at 5:00 AM on a Monday morning. I 30th streethave not done a lot of train travelling and have never done so overnight, but today is different than any other day. The only way to make it on time to my friend Ivan Kauffman’s funeral this morning was to take the red-eye from Providence. And there’s no way I’m missing Ivan’s funeral—he was special. One of a kind. Unique. All of the things that traditionally get said about people who have just died. Except that in Ivan’s case they all are true.

Ivan lived a long and full life—I met him when he was seventy. It was during my Spring 2009 sabbatical—Ivan and I were both “resident scholars” at the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research in Minnesota. MennoniteCatholicHeaderI knew that Ivan and Lois were a different breed than I had ever encountered when I found out that they were “Mennonite Catholics.” That made about as much sense to me as “Evangelical Unitarian” or “Muslim Jew,” but I soon discovered that Ivan embodied this strange confluence. He was a bridge builder, seeking to connect traditions vastly different in their practices but deeply rooted in shared mysteries of the Christian faith. An academic, scholar, poet, advocate and activist—Ivan was passion and conviction incarnate.

I don’t meet and get to know new people easily, but Ivan “got” me more quickly than just about any person I have ever met. We had amazingly similar backgrounds and youths—his father was a well-known preacher in Mennonite circles while mine was a preaching rock star in his corner of the Baptist world. Ivan understood everything that being a “PK” entails in a way that only card-carrying members of that special club can. 11403124_10207276325457373_5638237897791717417_nIvan and I shared a commitment to ideas and philosophical discussion, a love for writing, a distaste and ineptitude for small talk, and a full appreciation of adult beverages (usually wine for him and scotch for Lois and me).

One brief exchange during lunch at a coffee shop in St. Joseph, MN encapsulates Ivan for me. In the midst of a typically dense and intense conversation, Ivan pronounced in his usual stentorian tone that “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? And if you say ‘let me think about it,’ that’s the same as saying No!” This was not directed at me specifically—Ivan was just drawing a line in the sand, as those of us who knew and loved him expected him to do. But I remember thinking “I’m in trouble. Because not only am I not sure about whether my answer to his question is ‘yes,’ ‘no,’ ‘let me think about it,’ or even ‘which stories are you referring to?’—I’m inclined to say that ‘it doesn’t matter.’” Ivan and I frequently agreed to disagree on important issues, the sorts of issues and disagreements that sometimes end friendships before they begin. But I learned and practiced the skill of “achieving disagreement” over the years with Ivan. He had very strong beliefs and opinions, but was also ready and willing to learn something new and to change. He was a careful and effective debater who gave as well as he took. Ivan did not suffer fools gladly, yet could be extraordinarily patient and generous. 100_0150He could sniff out insincerity like a moral bloodhound. Hours of conversations with Ivan helped me not only to crystallize my own beliefs and commitments but also to learn how to communicate them without fear. Because Ivan was fearless and his courage was contagious.

Lois became my Morning Prayer buddy at Collegeville, trudging up the half-mile hill to the Abbey from our Institute apartments in sub-zero temperatures morning after morning just to read psalms and pray with the monks. Ivan was with us in spirit as he snored in the comfort of their apartment—not an early morning person. But Ivan’s spiritual antennae were attuned to the strange and wonderful behavior of the Holy Spirit—“Big Bird” as Ivan, Lois, Jeanne, and I called her—Big_Bird_-_Library_of_Congress,_Living_Legends,_Award_&_Honors,_2000[1]in deep and profound ways. Ivan defined a “miracle” as “something that everyone says will never, ever, ever happen and it happens anyways.” I consider Ivan’s presence in my life to be one of those miracles. He recognized early on, perhaps before I did, that deep down I was dealing with a full-blown spiritual crisis and was the first to note that, against all odds, things were changing for me. “You’re not the same person you were when you showed up a couple of months ago,” he said one cold March day. And he was right—I wasn’t. Ivan and Lois were both witnesses to and catalysts for these changes—I am forever grateful.

Jeanne met Ivan and Lois when she visited Collegeville over Easter Break, and the connection was immediate. Over the subsequent years we visited them in Washington D.C. a couple of times, they came individually and together to us in Providence and, most often, we hung out with them in Minnesota, including during a Christmas blizzard. Minnesota grabbed them so strongly that they never left until just a couple of months before Ivan’s passing. Jeanne and Ivan often butted heads over the importance of Catholic hierarchy—11028026_10207446951476269_3046618229121473998_n (2)Ivan as a Catholic convert and Jeanne as a cradle Catholic had quite different perspectives on any number of things Catholic. One day Lois and I returned from noon prayer to find Ivan and Jeanne in the midst of a deep and intense conversation. They were role playing—Ivan was playing the role of the Pope, and Jeanne was challenging him to account for any number of things from papal infallibility through an all-male priesthood to the prohibition of contraceptives. Pope Ivan essentially told Lois and I that their conversation was important—we could either leave or be present but silent. Far be it from me to contradict a papal edict.

****************************************************************

Abbot JohnA couple of take-aways from this morning’s funeral. After a red-eye train trip, two subways and one twenty- minute bus ride through a very sketchy part of Philadelphia, I was thrilled to see Abbot John Klassen, monk in charge of St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville where Lois, Ivan and I spent dozens of hours together, at the front of the church. John is at least six-foot four—in his abbot getup he looks like one of the beautiful cranes who hang out in the various Minnesota lakes. After his usual bear-monk hug, we compared Ivan notes. John had travelled farther than I to be at the funeral, but shared my feelings—“There is no place in the universe that I was going to be this morning other than here,” he said. The Abbot told me a great Ivan story I had never heard. When Ivan and Lois visited St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome for the first time many years ago, Ivan looked around at the gaudy, baroque splendor and asked “Is all of this really necessary?” The Mennonite trumped the Catholic on that occasion.

The first reading during the funeral mass was from the prophet Micah. I had no idea that my favorite passage from the Jewish scriptures was also Ivan’s.

He has showed you, O mortal, what is good—and what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God?

More than anyone I have ever known, Ivan lived that verse to its fullest. Rest in peace, Ivan—and say hi to Big Bird. I’ll be seeing you soon.

Candle in light

Books that Changed my Life: Gilead

A candle flame looks beautiful in the light of morning . . . It seems to me to be a metaphor for the human soul, the singular light within the great general light of existence. Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

GileadThe front and back covers, as well as the opening pages, of best-selling and award-winning books are often filled with excerpted and edited reviews from various publications, reviews so similar from book to book and so over the top that I often wonder if there is a central-clearing house where authors and editors can order canned reviews to their liking. But sometimes the reviewers capture a book’s essence perfectly—such is the case with Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize winning Gilead. Described as “so serenely beautiful and written in a prose so gravely measured and thoughtful, that one feels touched with grace just to read it,” and as

A book that deserves to be read slowly, thoughtfully, and repeatedly . . . I would like to see copies of it dropped onto pews across our country, where it could sit among the Bibles and hymnals and collection envelopes. It would be a good reminder of what it means to lead a noble and moral life—and, for that matter, what it means to write a truly great novel,

Gilead is as close to perfect as any book I have read.midwest-church

In Gilead, a rural Congregational minister in his late seventies is writing a memoir for his young son, an only child unexpectedly born to Reverend Ames and his much-younger wife when Ames is seventy. Ames expects to die long before the child is grown, and Gilead is his love letter to his son containing as much guidance and wisdom as Ames can muster. The prose is measured and profound. Ames writes that for him “writing has always felt like praying, even when I wasn’t writing prayers, as I was often enough. You feel that you are with someone.” On my best writing days I have this in mind as a standard.Grammie and Grandpa (2)

I have often thought that if my maternal grandfather, a potato farmer with an eighth-grade education who was the wisest and best man I ever met, had been a character in a novel, he would be Reverend Ames. One of Ames’ greatest continuing insights concerns the sacredness of all things. As he nears the end of his life, he pays close attention to the mystery and miracle of things most of us dismiss as “ordinary.”

It has seemed to me sometimes as though the Lord breathes on this poor gray ember of Creation and it turns to radiance—for a moment or a year or the span of a life. And then it sinks back into itself again, and to look at it no one would know it had anything to do with fire, or light. . . . Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. dillardYou don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. Only, who has the courage to see it?

There is that “seeing” thing again, the same attentive awareness that was on display in Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek last week. For Reverend Ames, everything is a sacrament with intimations of holiness. And for this Calvinist preacher, the Divine Being he has served and conversed with for decades is still a mystery.

I don’t remember how Gilead came to me, or even when I read it for the first time (at least a half-dozen reads ago), but the Reverend’s struggles with the austere doctrine of his Calvinist faith are familiar. His is the religious world of my youth, a world that I have struggled mightily at different times to understand, to incorporate, or to leave.Calvin One passage in particular shook me to my core:

Calvin says somewhere that each of us is an actor on a stage and God is the audience. That metaphor has always interested me, because it makes us artists of our behavior, and the reaction of God to us might be thought of as aesthetic rather than morally judgmental in the ordinary sense. How well do we understand our role? With how much assurance do we perform it? . . . We all bring such light to bear on these great matters as we can. I do like Calvin’s image, though, because it suggests how God might actually enjoy us. I believe we think about that far too little.

The simple image of God as the audience for the artistic performance of the human drama and comedy, rather than the authoritative judge who is taking note of every single one of our failures, was transformative for me. I recall a similar moment early during my 2009 sabbatical when, d100_0230uring a noonday reading of daily psalms with a couple dozen Benedictine monks, we read in Psalm 149 that “the LORD takes delight in his people.” Who knew? Reverend Ames is right—we do think about this far too little.

Reverend Ames also provided me with a new angle on rational proofs for the existence of God, something I have grappled with both as a philosophy professor and as a human being for as long as I can remember. His advice is that belief in God isn’t about proofs at all. As a matter of fact, making rational proofs the basis for either defending or challenging one’s faith will eventually erode whatever faith one has.

In the matter of belief, I have always found that defenses have the same irrelevance about them as the criticisms they are meant to answer. I think the attempt to defend belief can unsettle it, in fact, because there is always an inadequacy in argument about ultimate things. . . . ladder to moonCreating proofs from experience of any sort is like building a ladder to the moon. It seems that it should be possible, until you stop to consider the nature of the problem. So my advice is this—don’t look for proofs. Don’t bother with them at all. They are never sufficient to the question, and they’re always a little impertinent, I think, because they claim for God a place within our conceptual grasp.

If someone asked me to identify and summarize the attitudes underlying my ruminations about the interplay of philosophy and faith in this blog, I would point to this passage. Thanks, Rev.

In the final pages of Gilead, Reverend Ames bumps into Jack, the prodigal son of Ames’ best friend who is leaving town on the bus. Jack asks Ames to say goodbye to his father for him. Ames agrees to do so, but then says “The thing I would like, actually, is to bless you.” Aaronic-blessingHe uses his favorite text from the Jewish Scriptures, Aaron’s blessing from the Book of Numbers:

The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make His face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you. The Lord lift up His countenance upon you and give you peace.

Gilead has been that sort of blessing to me, more than any book I have ever read. I am most grateful.

Border Crossing

As a youth growing up in northeastern Vermont, a trip to Canada was pretty much the same as a trip to Hartford or Boston—except it took less time. We lived about forty miles south of the border, and most of my family’s favorite hangout spots were north of the border. Montreal, about three hours away, was our big city; Quebec CityQuebec City, about four hours away, was our destination when we wanted to pretend we were in Europe (where none of us had ever gone); Sherbrooke, only a bit over an hour away, was the location of our favorite Chinese restaurant (actually the only Chinese restaurant I ever ate at before I turned twenty). Our trips over the border were so frequent that the border guards at the Newport, VT crossing eventually started waving us through—we just needed to slow down sufficiently for them to realize who it was. Sort of like EZ Pass decades before its time.Canadian Rockies

My family loved Canada so much that we made significant forays north of the border on our frequent summer driving trips from one coast to another. I became particularly familiar with the natural beauty of British Columbia and Alberta, considering to this day the Canadian Rockies of Banff and Jasper National Parks to be superior in beauty and majesty to the American Rockies (with the possible exception of the Grand Tetons). lobsterWhen I was a freshman in high school we explored the Maritime Provinces for the first time—a highlight was eating my first full lobster at a community lobster bake on Prince Edward Island. I spent a couple of Canada-less decades after my teens, but once Jeanne and I returned to New England in the mid-nineties, I enjoyed exploring with her the Montreal and Quebec City of my youth, even staying in the very same B and B in Quebec City at which I had stayed several times with my family twenty years earlier. Canada is a bit more of a trek from Providence than from northern Vermont, but that’s why they invented airplanes. I have loved Canada for as long as I can remember; several summers ago during the brouhaha over the Affordable Care Act, comparisons to Canada’s universal health care system were frequent. moose“We don’t want to be like Canada, DO WE??” one outraged letter to the editor author wanted to know—somone replied “What’s wrong with Canada? Canada is freaking awesome!!” I agree.

In the spring of 2002 I was pleased when an academic group I am involved with chose to hold their annual colloquy at the University of Toronto, offering Jeanne and I our first Canada opportunity in a few years. As we checked in at the Providence airport, the counter lady said “Don’t forget to have your passport out!” “My passport??” I thought—“We’re going to freaking Canada! Why do we need our passports?” We had forgotten that a minor event called 9/11 had happened since our last visit north of the border. We actually did have passports—it just had not crossed our minds that we would need them for Canada. We did not have sufficient time to run home to get them and return to the airport to catch our scheduled flight. When it turned out that rescheduling for a later flight would cost more than what we had paid for our original tickets, Halifaxwe chose not to go to the colloquy, using our tickets several months later instead to visit a different Canadian city—Halifax—that neither of us had ever seen for my March birthday. Don’t ever visit Halifax in March. It’s cold. We spent most of our time in our warm hotel room watching the international curling championship that was in town that weekend. Really.

Fast forward twelve years to spring 2014—this time my academic group’s annual colloquy was being held in Ottawa, Canada’s capital city that I had visited only once when I was a teenager. Jeanne’s work takes her to Canada frequently and she vouched for how awesome Ottawa is. I was pumped—I liked the paper I was going to be presenting and I even made a note to self not to forget my passport. A passport that I realized just a couple of weeks before the colloquy was expired. Discovering that an expedited renewal application would be prohibitively expensive, I chose not to go. passport applicationI placed the renewal application papers on my bedroom nightstand, intending to get a new passport forthwith so this wouldn’t happen again. And there they sat for several months.

Until just a few weeks ago, when Jeanne let me know that she had a chance to do a weekend’s work in Toronto from June 19-21 and wanted me to go with her. I never can travel with her when classes are in session, so with the semester over this sounded like a nice way to kick off my sabbatical. I filled out my renewal application form, attached a passport photo of moi taken at CVS, and mailed it off on May 1, sad to be including in the submission my expired passport with its Cuba stamp from 2002 (a future collector’s item). Paying $170 for expedited (two to three weeks) service, I was in business. Or so I thought. Two weeks later I received an email, followed the next day by a priority mail letter, reporting that my application was on hold for two reasons.

  1. I had forgotten to sign my application. (“Bullshit!!” I exclaimed until I checked my copy of the application and saw that they were correct—I hadn’t signed it).
  2. My picture was unacceptable because it was “overexposed” and my defining features were not clear enough. (That’s what I look like, morons! I have white hair! wtfMy skin is Scandinavian white! Even my eyebrows are white! I’m the whitest person I know!).

After a “What the fuck!” moment or two and a few deep breaths, I calmed down, got a new picture taken, this time at the main Post Office, filled out a new application, and sent it off on May 15th. With still more than a month before travelling to Toronto, no worries. Or so I thought.

On May 28th I received another email, followed by priority mail the next day, informing me that my application was on hold—again! This time apparently my picture was okay but the letter claimed “You did not sign and/or complete your original application. Please submit a completed, signed, and dated application.” Checking my copy of this second application I confirmed that I fucking well did sign and date it and fucking well couldn’t find anything wrong with any of it. And now it’s only a bit over three weeks before the scheduled Toronto visit. I decided to deliberately descend into the lower levels of hell and call the passport 1-877 number on May 29. helpAfter twenty minutes on hold during which I was advised at least twelve times that “due to an unusually high volume of calls the wait time is much longer than usual,” therefore I might want to try the passport website (I already had done that several times—it isn’t helpful), I heard “Thank you for calling, this is James, how may I help you?”

Practicing my Benedictine Zen, I calmly explained my situation to James, who helpfully walked me through the passport application so simple that a fifth-grader could fill out but that I had failed to successfully complete two times in a row. He was (most unhelpfully) not able to tell me what I had done wrong on my second attempt (“It could have been anything,” he offered) but seemed confident that it would work this time. But would my passport make it to me by June 19th (now a mere three weeks away)? overnightNo guarantees, but my chances were better if I would be willing to pay $14.85 for overnight delivery in addition to the $170 I had already paid for expedited service. This is turning out to be an expensive trip to Canada I thought as I wrote out the check and sent my third application into the priority mail slot at the Post Office.

While Jeanne and I were visiting friends and family in Florida June 5-15, I managed to convince myself that my passport would be waiting for me when we returned. But it wasn’t—and now I was moving into serious WTF and panic mode. A Monday afternoon call to the 1-877 number produced Mia, who was less helpful than James had been. Couldn’t say anything other than that my application was “in process,” couldn’t guarantee it would get to me by Friday, couldn’t think of anything more that I could do from my end, and generally couldn’t wait to get me off the phone. Shit. I prepared for the likelihood that I would not be going to Toronto, and even started planning what I would do at home with the dogs this coming weekend while Jeanne went north of the border. But yesterday around noon Jeanne called to let me know that my wayward passport had arrived—with about forty hours to spare. Here is proof:WIN_20150618_141315

In four hours Jeanne and I will be on a plane to Toronto with our passports in tow. I hope mine works—but if it doesn’t, I’d hope I get stuck on the Canadian side of the border. I’d be happy to spend my sabbatical in Canada. Canada is freaking awesome.Canada is awesome

Divine Stalking

He sees you when you’re sleeping

He knows when you are awake

big[1]Big Brother? The NSA? CIA? IRS? No—this is about Santa Claus, the most benign stalker ever. According to “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” the jolly fat elf has even appropriated moral authority over us: “He knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness’ sake!” Who gave him that authority? For that matter, who gave him permission to monitor my sleeping habits? As a kid I was entirely in favor of Santa Claus’ generosity with presents once per year, and was in awe of his amazing ability to almost be omnipresent, visiting every abode on the planet in one short night. But I found his interest in my bedtime routine and my moral behavior to be a bit disconcerting and creepy.

n_melvin_NSA_130616.video-260x195[1]This week some of the top news stories, in the context of renewing the Patriot Act, have focused on to what extent the right to privacy of citizens in this country has been and continues to be regularly invaded by various government agencies in the professed interest of national security. At this point, a disclaimer—I am one of the least paranoid and most trusting persons on the planet. Accordingly, I have found the outrage, the self-righteous indignation, expressed by many in all sorts of ways rather amusing, especially given how each of us cavalierly leaves a trail of identifying information in our wake each day. The indignation often appears to be directly dependent upon who happens to be in charge at the time.945654_10151486576681275_89686085_n[1] I also wonder just how gullible a person has to be to imagine that this is anything new or beyond what has been the case ever since the beginning of the digital age.

A question that never fails to generate interesting classroom conversation is What do human beings want more—security or freedom? Students invariably conclude that, as is the case with many interesting questions, the answer almost entirely depends on context and circumstances. september-9-11-attacks-anniversary-ground-zero-world-trade-center-pentagon-flight-93-second-airplane-wtc_39997_600x450[1]My freshmen this year were four or five years old on September 11, 2001, and each of them could tell me exactly where they were and what they were doing when the Twin Towers fell, just as I remember vividly President Kennedy’s assassination when I was six. Four short weeks after 9/11, Jeanne and I flew from Providence to Fort Lauderdale for a conference where I was giving a paper and chairing a session. All I remember about the conference is that at least a third of the academics scheduled to give papers did not come because they did not want to get on an airplane. But I clearly remember the Fort Lauderdale airport on the day we returned to Providence. It took us almost three hours to get through security, the terminal was filled with armed military personnel, all of which would have been unheard of a month earlier. tsa-lines[1]But most remarkable was the behavior of the hundreds of travelers whose schedules were being disrupted by the inordinate wait. I did not hear a single complaint; indeed, what I did hear was regular “thank you’s” from those in the lines directed toward those whose job it was to keep us safe. If anyone was bemoaning the obvious loss of freedom in exchange for at least the appearance of security, they were not saying it out loud.

After telling this brief story to my students not long ago, I asked What do you think would happen this coming weekend if people at the airport had a similar experience—hours to get through security, lines moving at less than a snail’s pace, armed soldiers at every turn? One student’s quick response summed it up concisely: “People would be pissed!” And so they would. Why? Because the overwhelming sense of insecurity that pervaded everything and everyone in the weeks after 9/11 have been replaced by a general sense of security, simply because nothing on the scale of 9/11 has happened on our turf for a number of years. heathrow-airport-london-security-scannersjpg-79ec3477441a411a_large[1]A line like the one in Fort Lauderdale in October 2011 is okay today in Tel Aviv, London, Riyadh, or some other place, but this is the “land of the free and the home of the brave.” Don’t mess with our freedom to do what we want when we want in the way that we want—unless we don’t feel safe, then feel free to suspend our freedoms in whatever ways deemed necessary, so long as you guarantee our security. I am sure that if the news of NSA surveillance was leaked shortly after a terrorist attack, the outrage would not be over violations of our right to privacy. The outrage would be over why the surveillance had not been more extensive and more effective. As the ad slogan says, “Appearance is everything.”

Perhaps the reason why worrying about the threat of someone watching me and knowing my deepest secrets, whether Santa Claus or the government, has never been high on my radar screen is because I learned at a very early age about the impossibility of escaping the scrutiny of the most effective and omnipresent stalker imaginable.

Before ever a word is on my tongue, you know it through and through.

Behind and before you besiege me, your hand ever laid upon me.psalm_139_1_by_beesadie-d30ijri[1]

If I climb the heavens, you are there; if I lie in the grave, you are there.

Your eyes saw all my actions, they were all of them written in your book;

Every one of my days was decreed, before even one of them came into being.

Now that is effective surveillance, straight out of Psalm 139. The first time I read Orwell’s 198459-4[1] as a sophomore in high school, I had no difficulty imagining a world in which everything about me is an open book. This is not because I sensed that the government’s intrusion into our lives was becoming more and more pervasive, but rather because I had known about the divine stalker, the God who would show me a Technicolor movie of my life at the Last Judgment, focusing on all of my sins and failings, since I had learned how to walk. Perhaps this is why I have always found the deism[1]Deist idea that God created the world then left us alone to do the best we can or the notion that God created the world partially complete and gives us the task of completing it somewhat attractive. I’ve known many people, my mother, for instance, who are comforted by Psalm 139’s information that God knew everything about me and had every detail about me planned out while I was still in utero, but not me.imagesCANNTSSE I just wanted God to get off my back and leave me the hell alone.

As long as my image of God is as the divine Big Brother—benign or otherwise—who knows everything about me before I think it or do it, the problem of squaring that sort of cosmic surveillance with even a shred of human freedom and choice cannot be solved. But perhaps the intimacy of God’s connection with my life can be understood differently. As is often the case as I ruminate on divine/human relationships, Incarnation provides a new perspective. What if God is not an external monitoring agency, keeping track and keeping score, but mysteriously interwoven with each human being so intricately that divine and human cannot be separated? What if finding God and finding me are the same search? These are open questions, but the very notion of incarnation, of a fusion between divine and humanimages[3], removes the fear factor, the concern that someone somewhere is holding me to a standard that I cannot possibly satisfy.

While on retreat a couple of summers ago, I met Cyprian Consiglio, a Benedictine monk who is a renowned and respected musician, composer, and author. My favorite of his compositions is “Behind and Before Me,” a setting of Psalm 139. In the CD liner notes, he writes the following about this song:1576301_350[1]

Ancient wisdom tells us that the beginning of the spiritual life is when we realize that God is within us—how long it takes us to reach that realization! But the next stage is when we realize that we are in God.

Strange and Beautiful

Forgive me for name dropping, but I went to dinner with a New York Times best-selling author earlier this month. Twice. Kathleen Norris, author of Dakota, The Cloister Walk, Amazing Grace, and a number of other wonderful books is a visiting scholar at Providence College this academic year and occupies an office that is literally across the hall from mine.kathleen I have known Kathleen for a number of years, but she was responsible for changing my life before we ever met.

I am currently in my final semester of teaching before a year-long sabbatical—it is still unclear exactly how it will all shape up and shake down, but I’m pumped. It seems like only a few months ago, but eight years ago I was in exactly the same situation—a sabbatical semester (the second of my career) on the horizon. During my first sabbatical, all the way back in 2002, I didn’t go anywhere; instead, I holed up in my office and wrote the first draft of a book that was published two years later. As I began to think about my second sabbatical on the horizon, I wanted to go somewhere for at least part of the semester (that’s what normal academics on sabbatical do), but my career has been shaped to fit the campus where I have now taught for twenty-one years. I didn’t even know where to begin.

the cloister walkA few months earlier I had picked up a book called The Cloister Walk while wandering around Borders. I liked the picture on the cover, a cover that also announced that the book was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and contained the following review excerpt from The Boston Globe:

This is a strange and beautiful book . . . If read with humility and attention, Kathleen Norris’s book becomes lectio divina, or holy reading.

The Cloister Walk became my bedtime reading—a book that defies description or summary. Following Norris’s quirky faith through the liturgical year was both strange and beautiful just as the NYT reviewer promised; as another reviewer wrote, “she writes about religion with the imagination of a poet.” I had no idea before I picked the book up that this was exactly what some unknown part of me had been looking for, nor did I know that on a practical level it would point me toward where I would spend my sabbatical semester a year later.Institute

Kathleen’s experiences that frame The Cloister Walk occurred during two separate residencies at the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research on the campus of St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota. While there, she immersed herself in the daily Liturgy of the Hours with the Benedictine monks at St. John’s Abbey about a ten minute walk away; she writes that the Benedictines refer to their daily office as “the sanctification of time.” The Cloister Walk is the fruit of that liturgical immersion—a “strange and beautiful book” written by a woman who I would come to know as equally strange and beautiful. As I read, I unexpectedly resonated with the eclectic spiritual vision of a fellow traveler steeped in Protestant tradition as I am—rule of benedictexcept that she was strangely attracted to the Benedictines and their ancient Rule.

An important aspect of monastic life has been described as “attentive waiting.” A spark is struck; an event inscribed with a message—this is important, pay attention—and a poet scatters a few words like seeds in a notebook.

I was familiar with the notion of “attentive waiting” from Simone Weil, another strange and beautiful person whose work had been the focus of my own spiritual journey as well as academic research and writing for at least fifteen years (Simone would have loved the Benedictines), but embedding such activity in the pressures of the “real world” had pretty much escaped me.

Kathleen describes in The Cloister Walk the frustration that her fellow resident scholars at the Institute felt with the poetic and decidedly non-academic energies she brought to their collective work, a frustration that I must confess I as an academic also occasionally felt when wandering through the intuitively organized labyrinth of her book. buberBut then, those who seek God must learn that there are as many paths to the divine as there are persons following a path.

When it comes to faith . . . there is no one right way to do it. Flannery O’Connor once wisely remarked that “most of us come to the church by a means the church does not allow,” and Martin Buber implies that discovering that means might constitute our life’s work. He states that “All [of us] have access to God, but each has a different access. [Our] great chance lies precisely in [our] unlikeness. God’s all-inclusiveness manifests itself in the infinite multiplicity of the ways that lead to him, each of which is open to one [person].”

I had no idea at the time just how badly I needed to hear that. On a deep level I had ceased hoping to find my unique spiritual path over the years, weary of running head on into what a monk described to Kathleen as “the well-worn idol named ‘but we’ve never don’t it that way before!’ And people wonder how dogmas get started!”

At the time I did not trust my ability to hear a possible word from God—I entirely relied on my intuitively attuned wife to do that for me. 209 inaugurationBut as I worked my way through The Cloister Walk I realized that something more than my usual resonance with a fine writer’s craft was going on—I wanted what she was writing about. Literally. I contacted the Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, applied to be a resident scholar for my sabbatical semester during the first five months of 2009, and on the day that Barack Obama was inaugurated as our 44th President, a crystal clear Minnesota day with a high of zero degrees, I found myself in a tiny apartment situated in the very same complex and on the shores of the very same lake I had read about eighteen months earlier. my apartmentWhat on earth was I doing here away from Jeanne and my dachshund Frieda, all alone surrounded by a bunch of people I didn’t know? The only good answer was that I wanted what I had read about. And the rest is (my recent) history.

Professionally what I carried from that sabbatical was a new way of writing (that a few years later turned into this blog) and a bunch of academic essays that as of yet have not been published (because I haven’t sent them out). But I was changed from the inside out. I immediately tested the waters of daily noon prayer with the monks up the hill at the Abbey, a commitment that within a few weeks became a three-times-a-day habit. The prayers were important, but inhabiting the Psalms as a collective body opened a “deepest me” space that I have come to recognize as the place where the divine in me hangs out. Every possible human emotion and every possible encounter with the divine is in those ancient poems.

God behaves in the psalms in ways he is not allowed to behave in systematic theology.

The value of this great songbook of the Bible lies not in the fact that singing praise can alleviate pain but that the painful images we find there are essential for praise, that without them, praise is meaningless.

[The Psalms’] true theme is a desire for the holy that, whatever form it takes, seems to be a part of the human condition, a desire easily forgotten in the pull and tug of daily life, where groans of despair can predominate.

One day at noon prayer one of my friends from the Institute nudged my attention toward the row behind us. “That’s Kathleen Norris!” my friend whispered in a slightly too-loud-for-noon-prayer voice.beatles I don’t know what I was expecting a famous author to look like, but it wasn’t this. That evening Kathleen—on campus for a university board meeting—visited the Institute for dinner. For many of us it was like a visit from the Beatles. Like any groupie I made sure Kathleen signed my copies of her books (I had them all in my apartment) and we spent three or four minutes in one-on-one conversation (which I was sure she would not remember). But just meeting the person whose book had brought me to this wonderful place in the middle of nowhere was enough. A year and a half later, while I was back in Collegeville for a writer’s workshop at the Institute, Kathleen and I were both staying at the Abbey Guesthouse (I forget why she was on campus). We had several breakfasts and lunches together, enjoyed some conversation on the guesthouse patio overlooking the lake, and a friendship was formed. I particularly enjoyed the envious looks on my workshop colleagues’ faces when they observed me lunching with a world-famous author in the cafeteria one day. randall lectureAnd now, several years later, she’s our current endowed scholar on campus and inhabits the office across the hall.

When my birthday came a couple of weeks ago, Jeanne and I took Kathleen out to dinner—she’s a great conversationalist and we had a wonderful time. Our plan had been to include our good friends Marsue and Robin (Marsue is also a Norris groupie), but our umpteenth snow storm of the season made that impossible. So the next week we did it again, and this time Marsue got to meet one of her literary heroes in person. It’s strange how things work out. Last August, just a few days before the beginning of the new academic year, I was sitting in the atrium of our student center minding my own business and I heard a voice from the stairs behind me—“I know you!” It was Kathleen. “And I know you too,” I thought. “You’re the person who changed my life.”

When It’s Over

Although I regularly find myself immersed in things medieval with a bunch of freshmen around this time every year, I am not a medievalist. I must confess that I often find medieval literature, philosophy, theology, and just about everything else medieval largely boring, inscrutable, or both. hellStill, it’s hard to go wrong in the classroom studying Dante’s Inferno with eighteen-year-olds. Sin, violence, torture—what could be better? Is suicide worse than lying? Is adultery less problematic than treason? How do gluttony and simony compare? Does sloth trump cowardice? Great discussion material.

Every time I descend into Hell with the Pilgrim and Virgil, my attention is drawn to something different. This time I took special notice of the first bunch of folks Dante encounters. Squeezed into Canto III, Dante - La Divina Comedia - Canto VI - Doré - Descontexto-2between a trio of threatening beasts and the virtuous pagans, we find “those sad souls who lived a life but lived it with no blame and with no praise,” lives so non-descript that neither Paradise nor Hell wants them. These are “wretches who had never truly lived” whose sins or faults don’t even rise to the level of getting a name. Call them the hello-my-name-is-whatever“Whatevers” who never committed themselves to anything. Their actions were neither good enough to earn praise nor bad enough to require mercy or justice. These are “wretches who never truly lived; the world will not record their having been there.” The Whatevers remind me of the Laodicean church in the Book of Revelation, about which God says “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I will spit you out of my mouth.”thoreau1a

It was the fear of spending eternity in the land of the Whatevers that motivated Henry David Thoreau to shake things up in his life. He begins Walden with “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Thoreaus_Walden_BandB_Lincoln_Massachusetts_1120A couple of summers ago Jeanne and I stayed at a lovely bed and breakfast—furnished with a wonderful hostess, hundreds of feeding birds and at least a half-dozen Chihuahuas—literally across the road from Walden Pond. On the other side of the lake, about a half-mile from where we were staying, Jeanne and I got to see the foundation and stone chimney of the tiny hovel Thoreau built for himself when he went to the woods. But Thoreau had the luxury to go to the woods in the first place, hardly a wilderness, since Walden Pond is only three or four miles from Concord, where Henry David could get a free meal at Ralph Waldo Emerson’s house any time he chose. 400000000000000220639_s4These are luxuries that most of us do not have. Is it possible to learn to live deliberately without removing oneself from real life?

In his very interesting novel Putting Away Childish Things, theologian Marcus Borg frequently drops favorite book titles, excerpts and poems into the lives of his various characters. One of the poems is Mary Gordon’spsu11_gord_9780307377425_aup-528f73a7869d8ffa19e2691985af84ff573f6a23-s6-c30 “When Death Comes,” portions of which resonate with me more strongly than Thoreau’s more famous lines on the same theme.

When death comes

Like the hungry bear in autumn;

When death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

To buy me, and snaps the purse shut . . . 

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:

What is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness . . . 

When it’s over, I want to say; all my life

I was a bride married to amazement.

I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms. 

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder

If I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,

Or full of argument. 

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

            I have yet another birthday coming this week, a good reason to wonder how I’m doing with this business of “making my life extraordinary,” as deadpoetsaltMr. Keating challenges his young students to do in my all-time favorite movie, Dead Poet’s Society. On the first page of Walden, Thoreau writes that he wants to “suck the marrow out of life,” something that never sounded particularly attractive to me. “Suck the marrow out of life” sounds a lot like “Be all that you can be,” or “Go for the gusto”—a call to fill my life with as many various and diverse experiences as possible, never stopping for a breath until I don’t have any breaths left. I guess I’m not the “marrow-sucking” kind of person. An extraordinary life need not be bursting at the seams with things purchased, places visited, or frequent flyer miles—although there is nothing wrong with any of these. be where you areMy mantras for an extraordinary life have become “Be where you are” and “Do what you are doing.” Pay attention. Be aware. In the busyness of the day don’t forget that each moment in class might be the moment that transforms someone’s life. Take notice that every “like” clicked on my blog means that someone, somewhere, read what I wrote and liked something in it. Be thankful every day for the gift of spending so many years of my life married to an extraordinary human being. Don’t ignore the multiple signs that my sons have become wonderful men.

Those who profess the Christian faith, of course, have all sorts of stories concerning what happens “when its over.” But as I’ve noted on a number of occasions on this blog, I have never found the promise of eternal life to be particularly compelling when compared to the question of how to live this life. The older I get the more I find myself drawn, when thinking about my mortality, to Psalm 90. I first consciously encountered this Psalm five years ago during noon prayer with a bunch of Benedictine monks; the time must have been right, because it has wormed its way deeper into me ever since. grass_dark_wallpaper-hdAfter spending the first several verses reminding us that humans are “like the grass; in the morning it is green and flourishes; in the evening it is dried up and withered,” the Psalmist drops the hammer. “The span of our life is seventy years, perhaps in strength even eighty; yet the sum of them is but labor and sorrow, for they pass away quickly and we are gone.” imagesThanks for bumming me out with the truth. But the suggested response in verse twelve makes all the difference. “So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts to wisdom.” I’ve come to realize that numbering my days is not about trying to guess how many I have left. Rather, it is about treating each day as the unique gift that it is—that opens the door toward wisdom. Be where you are. Do what you are doing.

When it’s over, I will have been more than a visitor to this world if I have taken attentive ownership of the small piece of it given me during my lifetime. I only ask what the Psalmist asks at the end of Psalm 90: “May the graciousness of the Lord our God be upon us; prosper the work of our hands; prosper our handiwork.” And please deliver me from the land of the “Whatevers.”

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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.

Grace and Peace

Grace means suddenly you’re in a different universe from the one where you were stuck, and there was absolutely no way for you get there on you own. Anne Lamott

A year and a half ago for Father’s Day, Jeanne surprised me by taking me to a concert in Maryland by one of my favorite musicians. I discovered OrtegaFernando Ortega’s music three or four years ago after plugging the name of one of the few Christian artists I can stand into Pandora. After playing a few of that artist’s songs, the Pandora elf decided that something by Fernando Ortega was close enough. The song, “Grace and Peace,” caught my attention sufficiently for me to find some more of his music—suffice it to say that I now have over six hours of Fernando’s music on a Spotify playlist. I brought all of my Fernando CDs to the concert and grinned like a groupie as the diminutive Ortega signed them.

This tune kept looping through my mind a month ago as I was away at a retreat in Minnesota called “Prayer in the Cave of the Heart.” When at a retreat, I’m always wondering what the take-away will be. What will this several day escape from real life give me that will be applicable to the daily grind when I return as I inevitably must? Two words kept jumping out at me during our liturgies and conversations at the retreat: Grace and Peacegrace ad peace. Which, of course, caused Fernando’s setting to bubble up as I sat frequently in silent meditation with my twenty-or-so fellow retreatants. Grace and Peace. I’ve learned something about peace over the past few years as I have learned incrementally trust my cave of the heart. It’s a good thing, since externally the past four years have provided me more opportunity for stress than any in recent memory. But I learned from saying Psalms with Benedictine monks that Psalm 131 is a good internal retreat in times of stress: Truly I have set my soul in silence and peace. As a weaned child at its mother’s breast, so is my soul. And my heart rate slows—every time.

Grace is more of a challenge. I recognize moments of grace more clearly than I used to; using Jeanne’s spiritual vocabulary, I usually call them big bird“Big Bird Moments,” those times when, as Anne Lamott writes, suddenly you’re in a different universe from the one where you were stuck, and there was absolutely no way for you get there on you own. But the philosopher in me wants to explore grace, to define it, to map out the lay of the land of grace—something that is likely to be a New Year and sabbatical project. How does one tap into the transcendent energy of unexpected gratuitous moments in order to energize all the days, weeks and months until the next Big Bird moment? As Christopher Wiman writes, To experience grace is one thing; to integrate it into your life is quite another. That, perhaps, expresses better than anything else why I write this blog—how does one build a daily life around occasional grace?

Today is Christmas Eve. As Jeanne and I watched my favorite Christmas movie, “The Nativity Story,” for the umpteenth time a couple of days ago I was reminded that at the heart of what I believe is a foundational story of grace and peace. Given that human beings have turned Christmas into one of the most stressful, hectic, and unmanageable seasons of the year, it is easy to forget that the original story is wrapped in simplicity and human ordinariness—but infused with transcendent grace. nativity story mangerThat’s how I think grace happens—it emerges in the most ordinary corners of our reality, taking its time and surprising us when we discover that nothing has changed, but everything has changed. There were probably more animals at the manger than humans; in “The Nativity Story’s” beautiful rendition very little is said. “God made into flesh,” one of the magi whispers. “He is for all mankind. We are each given a gift,” Mary tells an old, grizzled shepherd, encouraging him to touch the newborn child. And we are each given a gift—incarnated grace. That’s the mystery—God continues to use human flesh to be the divine conduit into the world.

I wish you the happiest of Christmases and hope you have the opportunity, whatever you believe, to look for moments of grace. They are everywhere.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christword-made-flesh-423x2501

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That Mary Thing

I have a colleague and friend with whom I share a lot in common. Eric and I are both “Johnnies,” graduates of the St. John’s College Great Books curriculum (he graduated a few years before I did in the seventies). SJCWe are both Simone Weil scholars and aficionados (he founded the American Weil Society more than thirty years ago). He was an outside reader on one of my books, as I was on one of his a few years later. And we are both hardcore Protestants. I write about my Baptist roots frequently in this blog; Eric is an ordained Presbyterian minister who has been a theology professor, a college chaplain, and for the past several years has been a hired-gun interim pastor for several large Presbyterian congregations on the Eastern seaboard.

Eric and I see each other once a year at most at the annual Weil colloquies. A few years ago as we chatted at dinner I found myself describing my professional life as a non-Catholic who has been teaching philosophy in Catholic institutions of higher learning for more than two decades. “I could never be a Catholic,” Eric observed. “I just don’t get that Mary thing.” Neither do I. But every fourth Sunday of Advent, including yesterday, is “Mary Sunday,” testament-of-mary-book-jacketso every year I get to think about the Mary phenomenon once again.

A couple of years ago I read Colm Toibin’s novella The Testament of Mary. Toibin places the reader in the mind of Mary many years after her son was crucified. She is full of guilt and bitterness, has little use for Matthew and John who visit on occasion to fact check their accounts of Jesus’ life, and is convinced that her son’s death was not worth it. The book is not for the Christian faint of heart—the gentle, submissive, ethereal, and holy Mary of tradition and art masterpieces is nowhere to be found. But as always, I found it exhilarating to consider a religious icon as the flesh-and-blood human being that she was.

I believe that over the centuries Christians have made two mistakes concerning Mary. We have treated her either as a museum piece or as a holy relic. In the tradition I grew up in, we treated Mary as a museum piece. The only time I ever heard about Mary was around Christmas or if the text for the day was the marriage at Cana when Jesus is unaccountably rude to her. At Christmas, Mary showed up in the pageant.imagesCAXNTWCG I remember in various Christmas pageants being the innkeeper, a wise man, a shepherd—all of the usual male roles; once I even got to be Joseph.  So there was a Mary wing in the Baptist Christian museum of my youth, but it was small and uninteresting.

In other Christian traditions, such as the one in which Jeanne grew up, Mary plays a slightly more central role. In these churches Mary often gets more face time in artistic representations than Jesus himself. Attention to Mary has evolved into complicated ritualistic forms which in some cases border on the cultish. San+Gennaro+Festival+Returns+New+York+Little+1r1OJyXXSo3l[1]You may remember a scene from the movie Godfather II  in which a much larger than life statue of Mary is carried reverently through the streets of Manhattan as onlookers attach dollar bills to her. Jeanne tells me that such Mary-as-a-holy-relic events are by no means uncommon—if it’s Tuesday, it must be time for another Mary parade!

Because we have either placed her virtually behind glass or smothered her in ritual, Mary has been effectively hidden from us. But if Mary is neither a museum piece nor a holy relic, who or what is she?

From the few details provided in the gospels, joined together with what we know about the culture in which she lived, we can sketchily picture Mary. Mary is young, most likely in her early teens.2006_the_nativity_story_007[1] She is engaged to Joseph, a man much older than Mary, an engagement arranged between Joseph and Mary’s father. Mary is almost certainly poor. Her skin is darker than suggested in traditional artwork. She has dirt under her fingernails. We do not know whether she has siblings, nor do we know from the gospels anything about her parents. She’s nothing special, just an insignificant young girl living in a nothing town in the eastern backwater of the Roman Empire. And she is visited by an angel.

In scripture, angels are always the heralds of new beginnings, inviting us to adventure. They introduce mystery—they do not clarify. Angels announce new departures and the beginning of something whose end is not in view. This particular angel’s announcement to Mary is an explosion of beauty from the first sentence: annunciation1[1]“Greetings, favored one—the Lord is with you.” And in the narrative of incarnation that Advent prepares us for, the Lord is with all of us. “Greetings, favored ones—the Lord is with us.” We are all too aware of our humanity, of our shortcomings and failings, that we bear the burden, as John Henry Newman wrote, of “some aboriginal calamity.” But we are also the bearers of the divine. The promise of incarnation is that God chooses, inexplicably, miraculously, to inhabit flawed and imperfect matter, to become human. The promise to Mary is the promise to us—the Lord is with us. We, as Mary, are the wombs from which the divine enters the world each day. We are the incubators of God.  Mary’s response to Gabriel is the only one possible—“How can this be?” It is a mystery. It is also a great story.

When Mary gathers herself sufficiently to comment on the angel’s announcement after he leaves, she begins in the right place. “For he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed.” Mary is saying that “I’m nothing special. I’m just a garden variety human being. But the divine has shown remarkable and glorious favor toward me and has bestowed abundant blessing on me by choosing to inhabit me.” There is only one possible reason for this favor, because Mary knows that she has done nothing to earn it. This reason is love. Love is holy because it is a lot like grace—the worthiness of its object is never really what matters. The astounding mystery and wonder of God’s love for us permeates throughout the beautiful story of the Annunciation. This favor and blessing continues. hands_and_feet_2[1]The incarnation narrative—the story of God becoming flesh—is a direct response to our inherent flaws, imperfections, limitations, and evil. Divine favor and blessing is offered to all of us. And the status of humanity is raised when God inhabits it. I remember singing a Sunday School song that included the lines “we are his hands, we are his feet.” That is the mystery, the scandal, and the beauty of the incarnation story: God entrusts flawed human beings to be the divine in the world.

At St. John’s University and Abbey in Collegeville Minnesota, Benedictine priestdiekmann[1] Godfrey Diekmann was a rock star. He and his mentor, Fr. Virgil Michael, were perhaps more responsible for liturgical reform and renewal in the Catholic Church than any others. When I was a resident scholar at an ecumenical institute at St. John’s in the Spring 2009 semester, I heard many Godfrey Diekmann stories—his wit as well as his temper were legendary. My favorite of these stories might be apocryphal, but I heard it so often that I suspect it is true. One evening while eating with colleagues and students in the student dining room, Diekmann got involved in a spirited conversation about the heart of Christian theology and life. He startled those at his table as well as those within earshot by slamming his hand on the table and shouting “It’s not the Resurrection, god-dammit! It’s the Incarnation!” As students, stunned into silence, slipped away he added “But we don’t believe it. We don’t believe that we are invited to become the very life of God.” The Christmas we anticipate—that is incubating in each of us—is the moment of salvation as God enters time, history, and each of us.matthew_fox_original_blessing[1]

We are His hands. We are his feet. It almost makes me agree with former Dominican Matthew Fox, who has argued for years that the doctrine of original sin should be replaced with the doctrine of original blessing.

NativityAdvent’s strongest image is pregnancy. Elizabeth’s . . . Mary’s . . . so unexpected, so miraculous. Advent reminds us that in our lives there is always a child ready to enter the world—the divine child that is in each of us and the child of God that each of us is. So here we all are, favored of God, loved by God, regardless of whether we feel it or deserve it. A great gift has been placed in us, a gift that carries with it unlimited responsibility. How will we nurture this child? How will we bring it to birth? What is incubating in each of us is as individual and unique as each of us is—and it is divine. How will we welcome this child? Mary’s response must be ours: “Here we are, the servants of the Lord. Let it be with us according to your Word.”024

lamentation giotto

That Hopey Changey Thing

CyprianCyprian Consiglio, the Benedictine monk, theologian, hermitage prior and musician who ran the retreat I attended in Minnesota a few weeks ago, defines “liturgy” as “ideology in action.” Annie Dillard defines it as a collection of words and phrases that human beings over the centuries have been able to address to God without getting killed (she also suggests that we should wear crash helmets to church).Annie Dilard I like both of these definitions. I have a deep resonance with liturgy, especially liturgy expressed in music, something surprising given that there was none in my Baptist world growing up. Although “ideology” is usually something I accuse people I disagree with of embracing, Cyprian’s definition reminds me that at its core, ideology is simply the collection of beliefs, stories, ideas and commitments, some conscious and some unconscious, that guides a person’s actions and frames a person’s life. We are all ideologues. Liturgical frameworks provide a container that shapes this collection with reference to what is greater than us. Annie’s definition is a reminder that the very attempt to say or do anything with content and meaning referring to what is greater than us is at best misguided, at worst ridiculous.

004Of the many varieties of liturgical celebration I have encountered over the past few years, including a number of them at St. John’s Abbey in Minnesota (the Benedictines know how to do liturgy better than anyone), the most striking is the Good Friday morning prayer service I have experienced twice with the monks at the Abbey. On Good Friday afternoon there is the large, austere three-hour service permeated primarily with silence and capped by kissing the cross that certain sorts of Christians are fond of (I’m not one of them). But at 7:00 in the morning, the Good Friday morning prayer service sets the tone for the day as a solitary monk chants the entire book of Lamentations from the Jewish scriptures. lamentationsNot familiar with that book? That’s probably because it’s the most depressing book in the Bible—perhaps anywhere. Lamentations is a litany of five poetic dirges over the destruction of Jerusalem. Traditionally attributed to the prophet Jeremiah, the tone of the poems is bleak: God does not speak, the degree of suffering is presented as undeserved, and expectations of future redemption are minimal. In Psalm 129 the Psalmist writes “Plowmen have plowed my back and made their furrows long”—Lamentations is page after page of that sentiment. “And have a nice day”—except that Good Friday isn’t supposed to be a nice day, so the twenty-minute dirge is appropriate.

In last Friday’s post I was anticipating the service that would take place that afternoon in our campus’ main chapel in memory of our beloved colleague and friend Siobhan who died far too soon in an automobile accident the day before Thanksgiving.

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As I settled into my seat with the several hundred persons who closed offices and cancelled classes in the middle of the day to honor ross-siobhan-headshotSiobhan and celebrate her life, I noticed in the program that the Old Testament reading was from Lamentations. “That’s appropriate,” I thought. “At least there’s nothing in Lamentations that will give us the unwelcome advice that we should not feel the devastating loss and sadness that we feel.” But I had forgotten that just about half way through the poems, Jeremiah comes up briefly for air.

I will call this to mind, as my reason to hope:

The favors of the Lord are not exhausted, his mercies are not spent;

They are renewed each morning, so great is his faithfulness.

My portion is the Lord, therefore will I hope in him.

Good is the Lord to one who waits for him, to the soul that seeks him;

It is good to hope in silence for the saving help of the Lord.

A few years ago a dynamic, fresh new face burst onto the American political scene promising “Hope and Change”; not long afterwards Hopey ChangeySarah Palin, not particularly enamored of this new guy, snarkily asked “How’s that hopey changey thing working out for ya?” Politics aside, it’s a good question. The Apostle Paul famously wrote “Now abide faith, hope and love—but the greatest of these is love.” The editor of First Corinthians took out something else Paul wrote: “But sometimes the toughest of these is hope.”

Advent is the liturgical season of hope—my favorite of all the liturgical seasons because it means that the semester is almost over, I like purple, enjoy the Advent carols that only come around once a year, appreciate the opportunity to do something other than slog through the interminable Ordinary Time that has been going on since May, and because I am by nature a very hopeful person. But it has been a bit of a tough sell for me lately, with seemingly daily evidence that the world is a mess, no one has the capacity or wants to do anything about it, then a tragic reminder that human life is fleeting and even the best can be taken away in a moment. “NPRThe world really sucks,” my lovely wife commented as we listened to NPR the other morning on the way downtown to the bus station so she could catch a ride to NYC for a weekend with her sister whose husband just died. And it does suck. But if we are willing to poke our heads even momentarily up from the shit, Lamentations tells us that hope is always appropriate—and is a choice.

I spent a beautiful ninety minutes last Saturday evening at Providence College’s annual Advent Lessons and Carols Service, which always opens with a beautiful Advent hymn:lessons and carols

O come, divine Messiah!

The world in silence waits the day

When hope shall sing its triumph,

And sadness flee away.

Dear Savior haste;

Come, come to earth,

Dispel the night and show your face,

And bid us hail the dawn of grace. 

Who doesn’t want sadness to flee away? Who doesn’t want to see the dawn of grace that will drive away the night? But when the sadness is palpable, when the night is especially dark, what hope can a song offer? More importantly, in the midst of Advent, do we have any reason to believe that what we hope for—a divine presence in the midst of human sadness and darkness—is anything more than a fairy tale we repeat regularly in order to convince ourselves that there is a glimmer of meaning in a horribly dark world?

According to Lamentations, we have reason to hope if we choose to have it. And the reason to hope will not be found in external events, which will be as they will be. Hope finds its home in waiting, in silence, in emptiness, and in the conviction that there is more going on than meets the eye. There are as many ways to nurture the space of quietness and silence within as there are people containing that space. Our task is to be ready, to prepare a space for hope and promise to be nurtured, even when every external indicator is that there is no reason to hope. As Lao Tzu wrote,lao tzu

We shape clay into a pot,

but it is the emptiness inside that holds whatever we want.

We hammer wood for a house,

but it is the inner space that makes it livable.

I was taught as a child that I should find a place for the Christ child in my heart. I don’t exactly use that language any more, but I know what it means.

You come in peace and meekness,

And lowly will your cradle be;

All clothed in human weakness

Shall we your Godhead see.