Category Archives: Benedictines

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.

http://freelancechristianity.com/soon/

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.

The Universe in a Coffee Cup

If you are fond of a cup, say “I am fond of a cup!” For then when it is broken you will not be upset. Epictetus

Every time I teach the Stoics, I am reminded of how full their philosophy is of “Well, duh!!” truths. That’s a compliment, not a criticism. As a philosophy professor, I rely on such truths when trying to hook students into a discipline that can often be—Grand Inquisitoras Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor accused Jesus of being—“vague, exceptional, and enigmatic.” Every time the students’ eyes glaze over after a little too much exposure to metaphysical fog, it’s good to find something, somewhere, in the assigned text that actually relates to the lives that human beings live. This is not a case, as my father used to say, of “putting the cookies on the lowest shelf where everyone can reach them.” Rather, it is a recognition that since all human beings live on the same shelf most of the time, a “take away” relevant to life on that shelf helps to keep bad attitudes about philosophy at a minimum.

One the most basic “Well, duh!” Stoicisms has to do with not getting too attached to material things. EncheiridionIn his Encheiridion, Epictetus reminds us regularly that putting all of our happiness eggs in the material things basket is risky business, a business he strongly advises against. My students all know that they are not supposed to love material things—Jesus said so, Socrates said so, Gandhi said so, and so did their grandmother—but we live in a world in which this “truism” is extraordinarily difficult to actually live out. Although one of the typical concerns about material things is that they tend to corrupt one’s soul or turn one’s attention away from eternal things, in true Stoic fashion Epictetus’ warning is more practical. It doesn’t make sense to get too attached to anything that is not within one’s control, and despite our best efforts, material things are not within our control. Just ask the millionaire whose carefully selected and accumulated possessions have just been wiped out by a tornado or a wildfire. We need material things to survive but should not try to construct happiness on such a foundation. Well, duh!

I have never had much difficulty with this particular truth—case in point is that the eleven year old Hyundai Jeanne and I are currently driving is the nicest car we have owned in the twenty-five plus years that we have been together (although we just dropped a bunch of money to keep it in good running order). Even though we have accumulated a lot of stuff over the years, stuff just isn’t that big of a deal for me for the most part. Except for books. And my favorite coffee cup. We must have a couple of dozen coffee cups at home, two of which are my favorites, one because its handle accommodates two fingers on my large right hand rather than one, the other because it has an image of the Book Cow from the CowParade phenomenon of several years ago. NPRI also have a favorite cup in each of my offices on campus, one with a pissed-off bluebird and one that I got free from NPR for upping my monthly contribution $5 last April. This does not include my “I’m a Big Fucking Deal” coffee cup that sits proudly on a top shelf in my program director’s office. That cup is so important that I have never drunk anything out of it.

But in terms of importance and meaning these all pale in comparison to a coffee cup that experienced a tragic disaster a couple of years ago. One of the fascinating features of the Collegeville, MN collection of university, Benedictine Abbey, ecumenical institute and other interesting centers of spirituality and education where I spent a life-changing sabbatical over five years ago is the St. John’s Pottery, described on its main web page as follows:

St Johns potteryFor 35 years, The Saint John’s Pottery has embodied the Benedictine values of community, hospitality and self-sufficiency as well as the University’s commitment to the integration of art and life; the preservation of the environment; the linkage between work and worship; and the celebration of diverse cultures.

During my months at Collegeville I never visited the Pottery, which is located in enough of an out-of-the-way location on campus that I chose not to take the dozens of extra steps in ass-freezing weather to get there. But I often admired the plates, cups and other assorted pottery things in the university bookstore. I imagined that the Pottery was something like elvesSanta’s Workshop at the North Pole, with Benedictine monks taking the place of Santa’s elves, making and then packaging their wares to be shipped around the world. I never could pull the trigger on purchasing a $35 coffee cup, though, and returned home from sabbatical without one. It was only a couple of years later when back on campus with Jeanne for Easter that we visited the Pottery and she talked me into purchasing a coffee cup (not that it took a lot of convincing). It turns out that a master potter and his assistants make the stuff rather than monks. With the trademark St. John’s cross imprinted in the center, attractive blue/gray and cream swirled colors (or so they seem to partially colorblind me), and the necessary handle large enough to accommodate my fat fingers, I had a monk-made coffee cup (I chose to believe the myth) to remind me of my spiritual home away from home. Nice.004

Until I dropped it and it broke into about eighteen pieces two years ago. It happened on a typically frantic morning as I juggled various demands; it slipped out of my hand on my way to the Keurig machine. A hush fell over those in the break room, as they knew this was my favorite drinking implement. As I stoically said “Oh well, there are more where that came from” I was internally screaming “FUUUUUUCCCCKKKK!” Stoicism is about creating a space of inner tranquility that will lead to outer effectiveness, but in this case my attempts at inner tranquility had not averted outer catastrophe. The largest portion of the shattered cup preserved the imprinted cross intact; this shard has perched on my desk ever since as a reminder of a dark day in my history. It will also be a cool remnant of twenty-first century culture 005when it is excavated at an archeological dig many millennia in the future.

A bit over a week ago I returned to Collegeville for a four-day retreat; before even showing up at the retreat venue I drove onto campus in order to visit the bookstore and purchase a new monk-crafted coffee cup (I still choose to believe the myth). From a row of a half-dozen candidates, I chose a cup with the same shape, color scheme and imprinted cross, plunked down my $35 (inflation has not hit Minnesota pottery yet) and I was in business. I drank tea and coffee from it mindfully and with proper attentiveness at the retreat and it is now my favorite coffee cup in my office. But in comparing it with the fragmented shard from the broken original, I noticed that while the exteriors of the new and old cups are quite similar, the inside of the new one is significantly more attractive than the inside of its predecessor. 006The swirling contrasts of the colors are more interesting, a couple of random cream-colored spots celebrate its uniqueness, and I especially like that the inside of the bottom says “Hi Vance” when I have emptied the liquid (not really). I’m drinking coffee from my special cup (carefully) as I write.

I choose to consider my new monk-crafted cup as a reflection of what has been going on with me over the past few years. I’m pretty much the same on the outside (except for a few less pounds and larger bags under the eyes); all of the change has been internal. And for the most part, the changes have been welcome. lao tzuBecause I like what I’m discovering inside, I’m becoming more effective externally. Inner tranquility to outer effectiveness. The workshop I recently attended reminded me of the importance of internal peace and tranquility as a proper receptacle for the divine within me. As Lao Tzu wrote, We shape clay into a pot, but it is the emptiness inside that holds whatever we want. Advent began yesterday, my favorite liturgical time of year because it reminds us to prepare for the greatest gift of all: Incarnation.007

mindfulness

Going on Retreat

I begin with a confession. As recently as a week ago in a Facebook posting I have been telling people all semester that in the middle of November I was going to be away for four days at a conference (I might have called it a “workshop” once or twice). out of officeI put up an “away” message on Outlook announcing my absence for four days from the administrative saddle because of travelling to a conference, let my “inner circle” blog circulation list know that they would have to do something other than wait expectantly for my usual 7:30 AM Friday blog post on a particular upcoming Friday, arranged for my teaching teammates to cover the Friday afternoon seminar on the Aeneid that I would be missing, and generally covered my academic ass. No biggie—everyone know that giving papers at a conference is part of the academic life that requires rearranging classes and office hours on occasion.

cyprianExcept that I was not giving a paper. I wasn’t even going to a conference. I was going to a retreat, which in most corners of academia is tantamount to going to a 60s love-in. The name of the retreat, located at the Episcopal House of Prayer on the campus occupied by my beloved Saint John’s Abbey run by the Benedictines in the middle of Minnesota, was “Prayer in the Cave of the Heart,” led by a Benedictine monk who is the prior of a hermitagehermitage in Big Sur that I spent a week at a year and a half ago. It’s a good thing that I have not needed tenure or promotion points for a while now, because participation in such an event would have carried negative academic weight. The value of going to such a retreat in the middle of the semester in the eyes of the Committee on Academic Rank and Tenure on our campus would be similar to what the Psalmist says about the ungodly: “Placed in the scales, they rise.” The fact that I perceived several months ago that this retreat at this point in the semester would be good for my soul would be irrelevant to CART—“But will this produce a peer-reviewed article? Probably not? No tenure or promotion for you!” Too bad, CART. I’ve been around long enough to have been on that committee myself for a couple of years, convincing myself every Friday afternoon that I was qualified to mess with other people’s lives. If I determine that a trip to the middle-of-nowhere Minnesota is what is needed to keep my spirit, soul and body centered and willing to inhabit the same room, you can’t do anything about it.

Human beings are funny creatures; human beings on retreat are even funnier. The average age of the twenty-four people gathered at this one was probably a bit over my fifty-eight years, with women outnumbering men two to one. The women all looked alike—tall, thin, wearing glasses, with approximately  the same short haircut (with the exception of one woman with a long braid who looked like a refugee from the Sixties and who was the only person of either gender attending with hair longer than mine).ND Turns out that four or five of them were ordained Episcopal clergy from the Diocese of North Dakota. The guys were a bit more variant in appearance, beardless and bearded, bald and haired, thin and not so thin, including one heavyset guy who fell asleep during meditation in the oratory and snored really loudly. Twice. Everyone on retreat walks the same way, with a slow and intentionally reverent gait that actually looks a bit like how zombies walk when they are staggering toward you in the movies. Everyone and everything slows down at a retreat, at least at the ones I go to, which is a good thing.

Just as the other two times I have attended retreats at this establishment, silence was observed from the conclusion of evening prayer around 9:00 until the end of lunch the next day, the only exceptions being when were in teaching sessions with whoever is running the retreat. In these sessions we were allowed to ask questions, but only if they were good ones. I love silence. Silence is good. But not when packed into a small dining room for breakfast silenceand lunch seated six to a circular table, for breakfast and lunch during what is quaintly called “the Great Silence.” The sounds of people chewing their food while uncomfortably looking anywhere but at each other may be an important part of some people’s spiritual practice, but it doesn’t do anything for me. There is no one more introverted than I am, but even I breathed a sigh of relief when lunch ended and we all were allowed to speak for the next nine hours or so.

WardOther than the leader of the retreat, who came from California, I was the person who travelled the farthest. My flights were such that I was the first arrival early on Thursday afternoon, a few hours before the retreat officially began at dinner. After touching base with Ward, the director of the retreat house who is a friend (largely because between us Jeanne and I have been to five retreats at this place over the past five years) and moving my stuff into my room, ehopI went into the beautiful large living room area with a glass wall overlooking the adjacent forest, made a cup of tea, and sat down to read Anne Lamott’s latest book. TEA?? Since when did I start drinking tea?? As I have discussed in the past, I have been a dedicated coffee drinker (more like a coffee swiller) since my teenage years.

Saint Keurig

Jeanne was a tea drinker when we met years ago and still drinks tea on occasion as well as coffee, but not me. Tea is for pussies. coffee or teaWho can be bothered with the precious seconds wasted with opening the tea bag envelope, waiting for the tea to steep in hot water for an interminable minute or so, then figuring out how to drink it with a tea bag floating in it? By the time all that happens I will have swilled a paper cup of coffee, black since I can’t spare the time to add cream and sugar, and be back to the important business of whatever I’m doing—since everything I do is obviously important business. I don’t drink tea.

Except on retreat. I said earlier that human beings on retreat are funny creatures—I am no exception. Making myself tea instead of coffee for my first of many hot drinks over the four-day retreat was not a conscious decision—I didn’t even notice I had done it until I sat down to read. But my body knew something my mind didn’t know. mindfulGoing from an 80-100 hour week of work to a four-day retreat is not as easy as flipping a switch. Slowing down, mindfulness, deliberation and attentiveness—all those good things that I’ve begun to incorporate into my life but that slip through my fingers easily when swamped by real life—need practice. And taking the time to make a cup of tea (which I actually really like the taste of) rather than throwing another several ounces of coffee down my pie hole was a good place to start. Take the time to pay attention to what you are doing, do each thing as it comes, and wait to see what comes next. mindfulnessDo what you are doing and be where you are. I know this. Sometimes I even do it. But a retreat is an opportunity to drop fully into that space that I’ve been skimming over or dodging around for weeks. And to notice that it’s always there waiting—my deepest (and best) me.

I was even thinking that I should start drinking tea at work. Until I remembered that thanks to Saint Keurig I can now make a cup of tea as quickly and mindlessly as a cup of coffee. I don’t even need a tea bag. Oh well.

charlie%20brown%20teacher[1]

Celebrating Life

I recently submitted two grant proposals related to my sabbatical that will begin next July. The stakes are high–especially since I don’t handle rejection well. But I am a bit better at it than I used to be, thanks to something that happened toward the end of my last sabbatical . . .

There’s nothing more pitiful than a grown man feeling sorry for himself. But that’s where I found myself a few years ago while on sabbatical. My first conscious thought upon awakening was of the email I received the night before informing me that Icollegeville-inst1[1] had not been accepted into a summer writing workshop at the Ecumenical Institute where I was spending my sabbatical, a workshop that I really really really wanted to be part of. My career in academia has mercifully been almost rejection free, and it’s a good thing because I don’t handle rejection well. Despite learning from the email that there had been 141 applications for 12 slots, I took the “no” as a negative judgment about the whole me, from my ponytail to my shoes. This, in addition to my second conscious thought–“I only have nine days left here on sabbatical and then I’m leaving this place I’ve come to love”–and my third thought– “I have an exit interview this morning with the Institute program director”– made for a less-than-fabulous morning.

Slouching in my usual seat in the choir stalls for noon prayer, I was definitely not in the mood. For the first time in the dozens and dozens of liturgies in which I had participated from that seat over the previous four months,100_0331 I didn’t feel like being there. The hymn was lame, followed as usual by a section from Psalm 119 extolling the wonders of God’s law and how fabulous it is to obey God’s word. Whatever.  One minute of silence. The second psalm was entirely forgettable, until the end when the solo monk for the day sucked some phlegm down his windpipe the wrong way. After several seconds of coughing and throat clearing, he finished the last three lines sounding like he’d been sucking on helium. No biggie, dude—happens to me all the time. One minute of silence. The third psalm, number forty-something, included the line “it is good that I was afflicted.” Oh really? Well if you were as afflicted as poor rejected me you wouldn’t have written that. Stand up and bow your head as you recite “Give praise to the Father Almighty . . .”.  Disobediently, I didn’t bow my head—what do they think I am, a sheep?

Sit back down, another minute of silence. Solo monk says “Blah, Blah, Blah, Alleluia,” and we respond in kind, “Blah, Blah, Blah, Alleluia.” Stand up for the final prayer, which sounds like the grownups in the old Charlie Brown cartoons on television.charlie%20brown%20teacher[1]

“Wah, Wahwah, Wahwah, Wah,

Wawah, Wah, Wahwah, Wah,

Wahwahwahwah, Wah, Wahwah, Wah,

In the name of Your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ,

Who lives and reigns and celebrates life

With You and the Holy Spirit,

One God, forever and ever, Amen.”

“Lives and reigns and celebrates life”??? That one I’d never heard before—I think solo monk added it impromptu for my benefit. In any event, it worked like the face slap in the old Aqua Velva commercials and got my attention—“Thanks, I needed that!” I guess I’d never thought of the Father, J.C., and the Holy Spirit celebrating life together as one God forever and ever. What would that look like? My first image is of a Gary Larson-like cartoon. Imagine a round table. Seated on the left is an old, somewhat overweight guy with shoulder-length white hair and big white beard, wearing a white robe and drinking 18-year-old Balvenie neat (he saves the 21-year-old for Sundays). In the middle facing you is a sandaled younger guy with dark hair, skin and beard, hoisting a pint of Guinness and saying “Brilliant!!” imagesCAR35IOXOn the right, facing the white-haired old guy, is a dove standing on the table and dipping her beak into a martini with two olives. I guess it says something about me that my first image of celebrating life involves the consumption of alcoholic beverages, but it’s definitely a way of celebrating life.

Well if they can celebrate life forever and ever, amen, I guess I can try it too. And the evening before the day in question, for five hours before reading the email that shall no longer be mentioned, I had been doing just that with friends. Two of my good buddies (a married resident scholar couple), 100_0369a guitar-picking monk who is a native of Montana and tends the monastery orchard, and me. Our conversation ranged from still-new President Obama’s controversial commencement speech at Notre Dame to abortion to politics at the Abbey, while eating salmon, potatoes, salad, and drinking lots of wine. We ended up sitting on the back patio overlooking the lake as it got dark.  100_0366In the dusk the lake became still and as calm as glass, reflecting the trees along the shore in upside-down perfection. Brother John serenaded us with Bob Dylan and Joan Baez tunes, and talked about our colleague Conrad who had unexpectedly died (while pouring himself a martini) just a few days earlier. Conrad had loved this place, and thought it was a little bit of heaven. “I think this a bit of heaven too,” my friend said. If I believed in heaven, I would have agreed—but wait, that’s a different essay.

1852724[1]Then Brother John  started playing “Summertime” from “Porgy and Bess” and I knew my friend was right—this was heaven. “Summertime” is a song that Jeanne sings beautifully; she had sung “Suzanne” with Brother John after a group dinner when she had visited me for a few days over Easter and he fell in love with her (he told me so in an email). I can understand that because over twenty years ago, two days after we met, Jeanne, my dad, and I were having drinks in a Wyoming lounge attached to the restaurant where we’d just had dinner (my boys went back to my folks’ condo with Grandmaw).Jeanne singing Jeanne went to the front and, accompanied by the resident lounge lizard on the piano, sang another Gershwin tune, “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man Of Mine.” I decided she was singing it to me and I fell off the edge of the cliff I’d been balancing on for the previous two days. I was in love. I didn’t tell her for another month, but hey, that’s pretty quick for me.

When I got back to my apartment that evening, I checked my email, got rejected, and stopped celebrating life. How stupid. I am an introverted celebrator—IMG_9677I’ll never suck the marrow out of every minute and second like my dachshund Frieda and some other people I know. My kind of celebration expresses itself in what Anne Lamott says is one of the two best prayers ever: “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!” (The other one is “Help! Help! Help!’) I have a lot to celebrate, as do we all, if I just remember to find it. I can’t promise that I can stick to it forever and ever, amen, but I can at least finish out the day.

A Gnawing Suspicion

A mystic is anyone who has the gnawing suspicion that the apparent discord, brokenness, contradictions, and discontinuities that assault us every day might conceal a hidden unity. Lawrence Kushner

ebolaA few days ago Jeanne and I were in the car listening to the hourly news update on NPR. As usual, they were trying to stuff as much horrible news as possible into a three-minute segment. Ebola, ISIS, Ferguson Missouri, Palestinians, Israel, Ukraine, Russia, illegal immigrants— one of us said “they’re never going to figure this out.” I forget which of the above items the comment was referring to, but it could have been any of them. I know few people who are more naturally optimistic than I am, fergusonbut what evidence is there that we human beings are up to the challenge of solving our problems long-term in a sustainable way? The history of our species provides ample evidence to the contrary.

So what impact should this depressing and dour news have on a person not inclined toward cynicism or despair? I must admit that I would find it very difficult to avoid cynicism in general, overcome only by dogged attempts to make my little corner of the world a bit better on a daily basis, were it not that I am convinced that the often sad and grubby human story that is trumpeted at us 24/7 through multiple media outlets is not the only story in town. There’s something bigger going on. In other words, I believe in God. So sue me.

borg convictionsFor many the conversation stops right there. How on earth can an educated, relatively intelligent person with working senses possibly believe in the existence of God in the face of the massive evidence to the contrary that threatens to overwhelm us daily? Please note, though, that I said that I believe in God, not that I believe in the existence of God. This is a gradual, seismic internal shift that has been going on for a while, one that I have frequently taken note of in various ways during the two years of this blog’s existence (and for a lot longer than that). KabbalahTwo short books that I recently finished reading, Marcus Borg’s Convictions and Lawrence Kushner’s Kabbalah: A Love Story have crystallized this shift in unexpected ways. Let me explain.

The “does God exist?” question never had much philosophical interest for me (I don’t think any of the arguments designed to answer the question positively actually work very well); does god existover time I have lost interest in it just about entirely. The God whose existence is almost always in question is a being separate and distinct from the universe, a supreme being who created the universe a long time ago. This description usually goes on to add personality traits such as omnipotence, omniscience and omnibenevolence to God’s resume; God thus described is often imagined with authoritarian and parental attributes, with all of the positive and negative baggage accompanying. Marcus Borg calls belief in the existence of this being “Supernatural Theism.” For non-theists who deny the existence of God, it is almost always the God of Supernatural Theism whose existence is being denied; it is this God that is the target of the impassioned attacks of the “New Atheists.” supernatural theismBorg notes that when someone tells him that she or he does not believe in God, he “learned many years ago to respond, ‘Tell me about the God you don’t believe in.’ It was always the God of supernaturalism.” Borg professes that he stopped believing in that God when he was in his twenties (he’s now in his seventies). I don’t believe in that God either.

It isn’t that I now believe in the existence of a divine being with a different resume. It’s rather than I think “does God exist?” is the wrong question. Because the issue of God for me is not existential—it’s not about whether there is another being out there in addition to the universe. The issue of God is experiential. Scripture says “taste and see that the Lord is good,” and tasting and seeing are not arguments, rationalizations or proofs. Borg describes the shift I have in mind well:

borgThere is a cloud of witnesses, Christian and non-Christian, for whom God, the sacred, is real, an element of experience, not a hypothetical being who may or may not exist and whom we can only believe in.

Both Borg and Kushner call this orientation “mysticism,” and both refer to experiences that might be described as “mystical” that helped bring them to this experiential conclusion. I’m not crazy about calling myself a “mystic” for a number of reasons, but I do resonate with Kushner’s definition at the beginning of this post, just as I resonate with Borg’s adjustment of what the word “God” refers to:

A theology that takes mystical experience seriously leads to a very different understanding of the referent of the word “God.” The word no longer refers to a being separate from the universe, but to a reality, a “more,” a radiant and luminous presence that permeates everything that is.

KushnerKushner refers to the “gnawing suspicion” that there is a hidden unity underlying all of the mess that we find ourselves in. “Suspicion” is a well-chosen term, because a reorientation from Supernatural Theism to Mystical Theism (as Borg calls it; Kushner calls it “mystical monism”) is difficult to talk about and impossible to provide convincing arguments for. Words fail me, although I keep trying to find them. More often than not I fall back on the evidence of a “changed life” and “come and see,” finding strength in the fact that those who have also experienced the sacred and have not just thought about it resonate with me on a level deeper than words. They just “know” what I am trying to convey.

Working out the implications of where this takes me on all sorts of issues will be a continuing effort in these pages, as it has been over the past couple of years. But returning briefly to where I began, what might mystical theism say about the fractured and disjointed world in which we live? problem of evilTrying to square such a world with the God of Supernatural Theism gives rise to the problem of evil, perhaps the most intractable philosophical/theological problem of all. But as Kushner suggests, there is a different orientation available.

If you are a mystic, saying you believe in God means that you have an abiding suspicion that everything is a manifestation of God, and no matter how horrific it might be, it is still, somehow, filled with holiness.

The only evidence for that is experiential, and even such experience is iffy and enigmatic. I have not had the “road to Damascus” sorts of experiences that have changed the lives of many. My reorientation has been more gradual, which for me means it is likely to have the permanence that a “once for all” experience might lack. 100_0331As I sat for many weeks in daily prayer with Benedictine monks several years ago, the reorientation began as I noticed a slow opening of peaceful spaces inside and a new way of seeing what is around me. This does not conflict with my intellect, my mind or my philosophy—it holds them in place. And when I run out of convincing words, I plan to remember this that I just read from Lawrence Kushner:

Why is it that you cannot simply tell someone a great religious truth without a whole rigmarole of questions and hints, allusions and mysteries? It is because that is the way God made the world.dostoyevsky