Category Archives: Marsue

Mortals Die, and are Laid Low

tumblr_ma8azfhZEg1rgpruxo3_r3_1280[1]A couple years ago in a course that I was team-teaching with two other colleagues, the final seminar text of the semester was Shakespeare’s King Lear. One of my teaching colleagues, an accomplished Shakespeare scholar, described the play on the syllabus as simply “the greatest play ever.” I love Shakespeare and find his plays more insightful about human nature and the human condition than any other texts (certainly more insightful than any philosophical tomes I have read), but had not read this particular tragedy in its entirety since I was an undergraduate the age of our current eighteen and nineteen year old freshmen. The play blew me away, disturbed me, and made me wonder whether we perhaps should have sent our students off into the summer with something slightly less dark.

King Lear pushes to the limit a hypothesis that has a long and complicated pedigree: We live in a universe that is malign, at the very least indifferent, and human life within this universe is brutal, wretched, and meaningless. As various nasty and morally awful characters—including Lear’s two older daughters—apparently prosper from their rejection of their father, those characters with even a shred of dignity, honor, or love—including Lear’s youngest daughter—are rejected and ultimately destroyed. By the end of the play, the stage is littered with the bodies of both the good and the bad, while a handful of dazed survivors are left to pick up the pieces. Naked in a driving storm in the middle of a Scottish heath, Lear rages that human beings are nothing but “poor, bare forked animals,” living on a “great stage of fools.” Lear demands an answer to the question “Is man no more than this?” The blinded Gloucester despairingly directs his accusations heavenward:

As flies to wanton boys are we to th’gods; They kill us for their sport.imagesCAOCS0RP

And have a nice day.

King Lear took me back to a Holy Saturday liturgy a few years ago. At our Episcopal church, our rector Marsue decided for the first time in her many years as a priest to do the Holy Saturday liturgy. Holy-Saturday-e1364654989214[1]It’s a tough sell to get people to church on any Saturday except for a wedding or funeral, particularly during Holy Week when the most dedicated may have already been in church two or three times in the previous few days. I was one of only a few people present; if any of us had possessed the presence of mind to check the prayer book before coming, we probably wouldn’t have bothered. It’s a very dark liturgy. Jesus is dead in the tomb, the altar is stripped bare, and everything in the rubric is intended to get you notjob[1] to think about what is coming the next day. A central line in one of the prayers that day was “In the midst of life we are in death” Most striking that afternoon, however, was the following from the book of Job:

A mortal, born of woman, few of days and full of trouble comes up like a flower and withers, flees like a shadow and does not last . . . For there is hope for a tree, if it is cut down, that it will sprout again, and that its shoots will not cease . . . But mortals die, and are laid low; humans expire, and where are they? As waters fail from a lake, and a river wastes away and dries up, so mortals lie down and do not rise again; until the heavens are no more, they will not awake or be roused out of their sleep.

These lines would have been appropriate in the mouths of any number of characters in King Lear, but they predate Shakespeare by thousands of years. The earliest text my interdisciplinary class studied this academic year, the gilandenki[1]Epic of Gilgamesh, is infused with similar energies—fear of death, as well as impotence in the face of forces we cannot control.

In the middle of Easter season, it is easy for Christians to immediately address these dark realities with the story of divine suffering and redemption that lies at the heart of Christian belief. And that is the message—God has overcome darkness and death, a victory that we are the beneficiaries of.  Yet it is so easy for this powerful story to become little more than a superficial panacea for all the darkness and loss that surrounds each of us, a truism that can blind us to an otherwise inescapable truth: mortals die, and are laid low. And during its short duration, human life is often filled with nothing but suffering, pain, and meaninglessness.

The great eighteenth-century essayist and philosopher Voltaire once provocatively wrote that “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.”voltaire_if_god_did_not_exist_necessary_to_invent_postcard-r747d414000d64546b6a280ed3f476a5d_vgbaq_8byvr_210[1] This statement shook up a number of Voltaire’s contemporaries, leading many to imagine that any person who could write such a thing seriously must be an atheist. The statement remains provocative, and it is clear from his body of work that whatever Voltaire might have been, he was not a traditional religious believer in any sense of the word. But with the apparent meaninglessness of human existence and reality in view, Voltaire’s famous claim is absolutely true. There is something about the darkest and most sobering parts of human reality that cry out for, actually demand, a response. The human epitaph cannot be “Life’s a bitch, and then you die.”

All sorts of responses, ranging from religious through philosophical and literary to political, have been offered over the centuries, responses that often conflict with each other and even more frequently fail to take the fundamental problem on squarely. Which of these stories is true? More importantly, how can we know if any of them are true? How can we be sure that these stories are anything more than a collection of tunes human beings have written to whistle in the dark until the night overwhelms them? I submit that we cannot be sure. Yet billions of people have been willing to shape their lives, to stake their very existence at least virtually, sometimes literally, on the truth of one or more of these stories. Simone_Weil-11[1]Why? Because there is something in the human heart that has to believe them, something that has to hope. And it is that very longing and hope that is perhaps most convincing. As Simone Weil reminds us, “if we ask our Father for bread, he will not give us a stone.”

The third and final portion of Handel’s Messiah,handels-messiah[1] immediately following the “Hallelujah Chorus,” begins with “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth,” a soaring, spectacularly beautiful soprano solo setting of the following text from Job, with a concluding sentiment from First Corinthians:

I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth;

And though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God.

For now is Christ risen from the dead, the first fruits of them that sleep.

From the depths of despair, literally from the middle of a pile of ashes, Job clings to a hopeful story, that there is a transcendent and triumphant divine response to human incapacity, despair, and hopelessness. It’s a wonderful story. How can I not believe it? I hope and pray that it is true. It had better be.

To Die For

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

A couple of years ago, after a week at work that completely wore me out, I was strongly tempted to skip church on Sunday morning for the first time in months. But it was Palm Sunday, Jeanne was scheduled to be chalice bearer at the altar, so my Protestant guilt kicked in and off to church I went. At least it was going to be the first Sunday service in weeks in which I had nothing to do but sit in the pew—no seminar to lead, no scripture to read, and no organ to play. h19_18559141I would try to enjoy the dramatic reading of the Passion narrative that is always part of the Palm Sunday service before returning home to finish our taxes. What fun.

As I entered the back of the church, our rector and my good friend Marsue was looking dramatic in her chasuble, appropriately red for Palm Sunday, as she waited to process with the servers, readers, and choir. Motioning me over, she whispered “do you want to read?” “Not really,” I thought as I looked to see what roles for the upcoming Passion reading were still available. Just about all of them, as it turned out, including the role of Jesus. “I’ll be Jesus,” I sighed. “I’ve never gotten to read his part.”

“I’ll be Jesus.” That’s really what it boils down to for those of us who have signed on to the project of trying to live out a serious Christian faith commitment. Holy Week is a time that many try to virtually “walk in the steps of Jesus” liturgically in the various special services during the week. But to actually be God in the world, to be the vehicle through which the divine makes contact with our human reality—that’s nuts. No wonder we are so creative in finding ways to make the demands of the life of faith more manageable. But my own attempts to avoid the challenges of what I claim to take seriously have been most recently exposed by the prison letters of twentieth-century Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

imagesCAK5RWXSIn the months between his imprisonment and his execution by the Nazis, Bonhoeffer wrote dozens of letters to his best friend Eberhard Bethge, letters in which he explored and pressed the boundaries of his Christian faith, a faith for which he would eventually die, in ways that have challenged and shocked readers ever since. Facing imminent death has a tendency to focus one’s attention and to clearly reveal what is important and what isn’t. As Bonhoeffer asks, “What do we really believe? I mean, believe in such a way that we stake our lives on it?” These letters are causing me to think about and look at the Holy Week narrative very differently.

Underlying the liturgies and activities between Palm Sunday and Easter is a shocking story in which “God lets the divine self be pushed out of the world onto the cross.” God is apparently either unwilling or unable to engage with the suffering and pain of the world other than to become part of it. If the dramatic events of Jesus’ final days are models for our lives in a suffering and distressed world, it is clear that “Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering.” I remember a rather dramatic solo that my aunt used to sing in the church of my youth almost every year at some point leading up to Good Friday that includes the line “he could have called ten thousand angels, but he died alone for you and me.” If we take all of the accretions of dogma and doctrine out of the picture, the story of Jesus’ last days is a disaster—as I read that Palm Sunday morning during the Passion narrative as Matthew presents it, the final words Jesus gasps from the cross are “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Precisely the question Bonhoeffer must have been asking from his prison cell.

photo-1-e524059dbea1cebfe788ab374f45a37680085cdc-s40-c85

“Jesus the Homeless” statue, Davidson N.C.

I’ll be wrestling with some of this here this week; at the moment, I’m focused on the following from one of Bonhoeffer’s last letters:

To be a Christian does not mean to be religious in a particular way, to make something of oneself . . . but to be a person—not a type of person, but the person that Christ creates in us. It is not the religious act that makes the Christian, but participation in the sufferings of God in the secular life.

How to do that? That is the question. See you in a couple days when Jesus kills a fig tree.

Home for Each Other

Twenty-eight years ago today my father said a few words over a beautiful redhead and me. Celebrate with us!

small victoriesIn her recent book Small Victories, Anne Lamott includes a hilarious chapter describing her year as an early sixty-something on Match.com. Four years after her last serious relationship ended, she decided to go high-tech and find some dates on-line. If she had asked me, I would have advised against it. I know a handful of people who have gone the Internet dating route and ultimately wished they hadn’t, matcheither because they failed to find anyone close to acceptable or, even worse, because they actually found someone and are now living to regret it. As she put her Match.com profile together, Anne asked herself what she was really looking for. Fun? Adventure? Sex? As it turned out, she realized that she was really looking for something better than all of the above.

Union with a partner–someone with whom to wake, whom you love, and talk with on and off all day, and sit with at dinner, and watch TV and movies with, and read together in bed with, and do hard tasks with, and are loved by. That sounds really lovely.

“Wow,” I thought as I read her description. “That sounds like Jeanne and me—except that Anne forgot about the three dogs in bed part.” And Anne is right—it really is lovely.

Both of us inched past six decades on earth recently; it is a surprise when I realize that we have now spent almost half of our lives on earth together. A surprise, because in some ways it seems longer than that—I have to concentrate to remember details of my life before we met over twenty-eight years ago. People in their early thirties have a lot of history behind them and are carrying a lot of baggage—mine included a failed marriage and two young sons—Trudy and Bruce June 1982but in many ways I feel as if my life truly began when my parents introduced the two of us the day before Thanksgiving so many years ago. I suspect that  knowledge of everything the ensuing twenty-eight years would hold might have given us pause. But lacking such knowledge, we did what people who have fallen in love frequently do—we decided to give it a shot. As Kierkegaard once said, even though life can only be understood backwards, it has to be lived forwards.

And as they say, life is what happens while you are making other plans; or, I might add, what happens when you are too busy with the details of the daily grind to notice. The best thing anyone has ever said to me about Jeanne’s and my relationship came from a very wise friend in the middle of a particularly challenging time a number of years ago. “You and Jeanne are home for each other,” my friend said. And she was right. Homes need repairs on occasion, need sprucing up at other times, require regular infusions of resources, and should not be taken for granted—it is a terrible thing to be homeless. That applies to the physical structures we live in as well. But the space that Jeanne and I inhabit has truly become what Anne Lamott was looking for (and didn’t find) on Match.com—a place to comfortably live.

I think many of the people who knew us individually before we met wondered how two people who are so different would be able to make a long-term relationship work. We still are very different, but have built our days and nights around the things that we love and appreciate together. 100_0712Our three dogs. Great television. Going to the movies. Going to Friars games. Texts more often than phone calls. A shared commitment to trying to figure out what faith means and what God is. And the simple but profound joy of having one person in the world who knows me better than I know myself, a person who I don’t need to try to impress or to convince of my value and worth on a daily basis, who knows both the best and the worst I can be and is still there. And the pleasure of returning that favor of love.Jeanne singing

Jeanne and I occasionally argue about who is going to die first—she says that she is and I say that I am. It’s not that I am uninterested in living as many years as possible—I’ll take as many as I can get as long as I’m accompanied by all my faculties. It’s just that I don’t want to be homeless. Happy Anniversary to the person who agreed to build a home with me many years ago when we were too young and in love to know what we were doing—thanks for twenty-eight years of finding out together what love really is!The lovely couple

A Reluctant Rose

In spite of my love of and occasional success with flowers and plants, I have a checkered history with roses. They are temperamental, picky, and have a general attitude that I don’t appreciate. Previous owners of our house apparently had little interest in landscaping; there was nothing other than grass in the back yard and a meager collection of scrubby evergreen bushes in the front—the sort of bushes that people who don’t want to give a second thought to watering or taking care of plants place in their yard. The only exception to this general ignoring of plants was two rose bushes—one on each side of the front steps.002001 (2)

Red on the south side which gets tons of sun; pink on the north side which gets very little.  Both bushes did well for several years after we moved in, but during the past decade there have been fewer and fewer flowers, more and more spotted leaves, and this spring something new—little green worms who ate the insides out of the first few flower buds on the red rose bush. “Aaphidsphids!” the guy at Lowe’s said; “very common on rose bushes.” He directed me toward seventeen different products designed to kick aphid ass and strongly advised me to get the most expensive one (I didn’t).

The product I did purchase worked and the early returns are positive—the red rose bush is cranking out better flowers than it has for years. The pink bush was so pathetic last year that in the fall I cut it back to the ground, fully expecting it not to survive the winter. Whoever originally planted this bush knew less about plants than I do, since it is clearly in the wrong spot—roses do like at least a few minutes of sun per day. I have restrained myself from just digging the thing up year after year, since it and its red companion might be as old as the house which was built in the 1940s. Against all odds, the pink bush did survive our relatively mild winter—barely—and is now growing a few new shoots from the mulch up, currently with one meagre bud. We’ll see if it survives Morgan natural selection for another year.

Anna 1Several weeks ago I received an email from my friend Marsue, announcing that she had a birthday present for Jeanne (whose birthday was not for another month) that she needed to transfer to us as soon as possible. Marsue is an Episcopal diocesan priest and had an all-day in-service close by that day, so we rendezvoused at lunchtime to make the exchange. Her gift for Jeanne was a Rose-in-a-box named “Anna’s Promise”—after the lovely and wonderful Anna from Downton Abbey. anna and batesThis was an appropriate selection, since the love of Anna and Mr. Bates was one of our favorite story lines in the show. Furthermore, a Buzzfeed quiz once told me that if I were a Downton Abbey character, I would be Bates. Other than both being quite attractive, Jeanne and Anna are not very similar; the same Buzzfeed quiz told Jeanne that she would be Lord Grantham.

The Anna’s Rose propaganda on the box promised that the bush would produce “Large, novel tan flowers with a copper reverse, exhibiting a sweet & spicy, fruity fragrance that will freshen up your garden”—Annas promisea description probably written by the same people who write descriptions for the labels on wine bottles. Upon opening the box, I found a plant as bare and naked as Ezekiel’s dry bones. Three or four sticks upward and an equal number of them down; it took me a few moments to figure out which sticks were the branches and which were the roots. I had tried a plant-in-a-box a few times before, with consistently poor results, so I was not optimistic about Anna’s prospects. She came with extensive planting instructions, which I largely ignored. I followed my usual new plant regimen—dig a hole twice as large as the roots, throw in some manure, put the dirt back in, cover with mulch, and water. We agreed that the best location for Anna’s home would be next to the red rose bush; I planted her and we waited.

And nothing happened. Days turned into weeks, and Anna still looked like a pile of dry bones. After a couple of weeks, around the time that new plants generally reveal if they plan to survive, Marsue started emailing. “How’s the rose bush doing?’ “It’s doing nothing,” I said each time, eventually confiding that I was pretty sure that Anna was dead. Her box might actually have been a coffin. This, of course, was a disappointment to all parties involved—to me because it was an indictment of my plant skills, to Marsue because she gave a dead plant to her friend for her birthday, and to Jeanne because she received a dead plant from her friend for her birthday. More than a month after the planting and a day or so before she left for a three-week conference, Jeanne confessed that she prayed for Anna. rose boxMy complicated history with prayer did not cause me to leap to the conclusion that signs of life were immanent. A week after Jeanne left, now about six weeks since the planting, Anna was still dormant, comatose, or dead. Then a miracle occurred.

I was weeding the plant beds in front of the house and noticed Anna looking pathetic and dead; I considered pulling her up then and there, but decided to wait until Jeanne got home in a week. Two days later I was mowing the lawn and noticed that not only was Anna showing signs of life for the first time, but she had a lot of leaves on every branch I had assumed was dead. I took a picture and emailed Jeanne and Marsue: LOOK AT THISSHE’S ALIVE!!reluctant rose Jeanne took full credit for having raised Anna from the dead with her prayers; whatever happened, she’s sporting more leaves every day and I can now tell where her first flower-bearing stalk is going to be.m m and l Anna’s probably sick of my checking her out three times a day, but I’ll bet that’s what Mary and Martha did when Lazarus rose from the dead as well.

In a subsequent email, Marsue noted that there was something Biblical in the saga of Anna and she expected a blog post about it. I thought similarly and had already started typing in a few thoughts. Here’s what I think—Anna’s a good example of how things that are apparently dead are often simply taking their time gathering inner strength for a reawakening. As I have frequently written about in this blog, I am a case in point. Life is always a possibility for even those things and people who are, to all appearances, corpses. I gave a sermon once a few years ago about how this happened for me on a Sunday when the gospel reading was the raising of Lazarus.

Loose Him, and Let Him Go

Death and resurrection is part of the world we live in. It is part of each of us. There is no guarantee that Anna will produce spectacular roses—she may not produce any at all. But she’s a reminder of how things work in the larger scheme of things. Death is never the final word and there’s always the possibility of new life. The tag that was attached to the apparently dead Anna when I took her from her box/coffin read

“Anna’s Promise” praises the true heart and steadfast love that transcends the trials and tribulations endured by Downton Abbey’s character Anna Bates.

At the heart of my faith is the belief that such a transcendent, steadfast love is the backdrop for this often disappointing and difficult world that we find ourselves in. May it be so.

Ordinary Lives

There is no greatness where there is no goodness, simplicity, or truth Leo Tolstoy

Although Jeanne and I have lived in our house since 1996, there has never been a time when some portion of the house hasn’t been under revision, ranging in seriousness from furniture arrangement through a new coat of paint to knocking down walls and starting over again. money pitOur largest project, transforming the basement into livable space, a three-year process that turned out to be about ten times more expensive than we originally budgeted, was finished a year and a half ago. Our most recent transformation was a small bedroom that has served multiple purposes, from a TV room to the living space for my son for four years through several eventful and difficult years that also just ended not long ago. We have finally turned it into the library/reading room that we have always wanted but have not been able to create until now.

Our library room has one large interior wall containing several dozen family pictures that we have never displayed fully. Both of us came into our relationship almost twenty-nine years ago with some pictures and many more have accumulated since. We have never been organized in our picture taking—years on end have passed with no apparent record of anything happening—but we have an eclectic mixture of items that will more than fill this wall. weaving-world-simone-weil-on-science-mathematics-love-vance-g-morgan-paperback-cover-artOne item on display is the cover of one of my academic books. Published almost ten years ago, the promotions people provided me with a half-dozen dust jackets suitable for framing, all of which have been collecting dust in one of my philosophy department office drawers ever since. I am proud of the book, but a book entitled Weaving the World: Simone Weil on Science, Mathematics and Love was not likely to be a bestseller. And it wasn’t. Framing the dust jacket has given me yet another opportunity to think about how to measure success.

VM Ruane 8I have a new book under contract, to be a reality early next year–something I’m very excited about. I have been blessed with a number of high points in my career, but the vast majority of it has consisted of day after day in the classroom, days that turn into weeks, months and years that meld together into a generally pleasant but indistinguishable conglomeration. Will there be any more mountain tops? Are my most memorable experiences behind me? At the end of year twenty-five of teaching, I can’t help but wonder.

Not long ago I led a seminar during the morning of the first day of an Honors faculty two-day workshop with twenty colleagues. The text was a handful of essays from Montaigne; toward the end of a fine discussion we focused our attention on one of Montaigne’s many memorable reflections, this one from the next to last page of the Essais:

The most beautiful of lives to my liking are those which conform to the common measure, human and ordinate, without miracles, though, and without rapture.

My colleagues were not unanimous in their reaction to Montaigne’s sentiment, but when are academics ever unanimous concerning anything, even the Pope’s Catholicism? A few suggested that this seemed to be both a recipe for mediocrity and a denial of the importance of miracles and ecstasy. emily_dickinsonA fellow philosopher said “Socrates would not have agreed with any of this,” and I overheard another colleague close by opining sotto voce that Emily Dickinson would not have approved either. They are probably right, although I suspect that Montaigne did not have Socrates’ past or Emily’s future approval at the top of his list of concerns as he wrote.

Other colleagues found much to like in this passage. richardgraceA professor from the history department who had just finished the final year of an outstanding teaching and scholarly career as he moves toward professor emeritus status said “I find this inspiring. It says that a beautiful life is not to be judged by whether you get your name on a plaque in City Hall.” This from a man who has a seminar room in our beautiful new humanities center named after him in honor of his extraordinary contributions over several decades to thousands of students and hundreds of colleagues.

I agree that this passage from Montaigne is inspirational. He is not suggesting that mountain-top experiences are unimportant; rather, he is reminding us that a beautiful life is not constructed from such experiences. There is a reason why the majority of the Christian liturgical year, although seasoned with the miracle of the Incarnation and the rapture of Easter, churchyearis spent in long stretches of inwardness, waiting, and getting down to the day-to-day, week to week work of being a regular human being trying to live a life in the presence of the Divine. The biggest chunk of the liturgical calendar, from Pentecost Sunday in late spring to the beginning of Advent the Sunday after Thanksgiving, is Ordinary Time. As the old saying says, life is what happens while we are making other plans. Montaigne suggests that the beauty of a life is to be judged by what you are doing between the miracles and the ecstasy.

A year or so ago, Jeanne and I had brunch with two couples after church, a lovely occasion that we all agreed should happen more frequently. All six of us have been to a few rodeos—at fifty-eight I was the youngest person at the table. Jeanne singingMy friend Marsue’s birthday had occurred a week or so earlier, so we all sang happy birthday as the waiter brought her a small dessert. The waiter remarked on Jeanne’s beautiful singing voice, a nice connection was made, and good vibes were in abundance. Jeanne and I tend to be generous with tips when the service is good; this time, Jeanne was so generous when bill-paying time came that the waiter returned with the cash, wondering if Jeanne had made a mistake. She assured him that she hadn’t; we then learned he would be headed for LA in a month to pursue a career in entertainment promotion. Grabbing his hands, Jeanne offered a quick, heartfelt and spontaneous prayer asking for the Divine’s blessing on this young man’s endeavors. “I’ll remember you,” he said to Jeanne as he headed back to the kitchen. And I’m sure he will—it was a lovely moment of grace in the midst of an ordinary Sunday afternoon.middlemarch

I have written in previous posts about my love for the closing paragraph of George Eliot’s Middlemarch. It not only is the most perfect paragraph I have read in any of the hundreds of novels in my reading life, but it is also a perfect expression of the sort of life Montaigne considers to be beautiful. Of her heroine Dorothea Brooke, Eliot writes:

Her finely touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

I would love to write a bestseller. I would love mine to be the first  likeness carved on the Mount Rushmore for Teachers that someone should create sometime. indexI would love to have thousands of people all over the world waiting with rapt attention for my next wise and witty blog post. But I would like most to faithfully live a life according to Montaigne’s “common measure,” bringing what I have to offer into each new day with intelligence, energy, and an occasional infusion of divine humor. Miracles and rapture are fine if you get them, but at the end of the road a “nicely done” would be even better.

Undoing Babel

Jeanne and I watched a documentary not long ago called “Fierce Light: When Spirit Meets Action,” created, filmed and directed by a man with the fabulous name “Velcrow Ripper.”imagesCAMGJ7EL He is the cousin-in-law of a colleague and friend of Jeanne’s who made the recommendation. The movie was beautifully constructed and filmed, as well as being very thought-provoking. The central thread of the documentary traces various ways in which people seek spiritual growth and reality that are seldom located in traditionally religious frameworks. All this, of course, in the middle of a world that seems to have little concern for matters of the spirit at all. The voices of spirituality, religion, secularism, materialism, power, and greed often are speaking languages so incompatible that our world appears to be little more than a cacophony of white noise at different pitches.

The Old Testament reading for Pentecost yesterday is a story that is familiar to many but has probably been actually read by few.  The Tower of Babel tale was part of the first seminar assignment (Genesis 1-25) for one hundred or so freshmen last fall in the interdisciplinary course I teach. These chapters contain stories so seminal and formative—creation, the Garden of Eden, Cain and Abel, Noah and his ark, the call and adventures of Abraham—that it is impossible to do them all justice. So I didn’t try. Hendrik+III+van+Cleve+-+Tower+of+Babel+(Kröller+Müller+Museum)[1]Instead, I focused our seminar attention on the strange story in Genesis 11. Very briefly, it is traditionally interpreted as a story similar to Noah and the flood—human beings are getting uppity and God puts them in their place. Because of their hubris, God scatters people in every direction as well as “confusing their language” so they can no longer understand each other. Just as we can blame Adam and Eve for original sin, so our seeming incapability of understanding or truly communicating with each other is inherited from the people of Babel who thought themselves to be greater than they actually were.

Reading this story anew with my students last fall, however, revealed something far more interesting and provocative. First of all, there is no obvious challenge to God from the people of Babel. What they want to do is build a city, share their talents, build a tower as tall as their abilities and technology will allow, settle down, stop wandering, and “make a name for ourselves—otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the earth.”el-castillo[1] In other words, this is a story about the early beginnings of what we recognize as civilization. Recognizing that the world is a demanding and scary place, human beings learn that there is strength and security in cooperation and numbers. Self-reliance and independence are better established collectively than individually. There is no obvious sense of humans thumbing their noses at God here, just a desire to reap the benefits of community. So what’s the big deal?

From the perspective of Elohim (the plural name for God used in this story), apparently this is a very big deal in a negative sense. Something about human attempts at solidarity, independence and strength is threatening to God throughout the Old Testament, but never more so than in this story. “This is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.”1aaatowerofbabel2[1] These amazing creatures that we made? Look at what they can do! Planning, creativity, cooperation, independence, ambition—the sky’s the limit! Great stuff, right? Our kids are growing up! Divine high fives all around! Not exactly. “Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” Someone’s sounding threatened and paranoid.

At the very least, the Tower of Babel story reveals that human progress by its very nature creates tension with what is greater than us. This particular God, sounding like somewhat of a control freak, is made uneasy by the prospect that what has been created might actually have a mind and will of its own. These are the early seeds of tension between the secular and the sacred. The divine response? Put an end to it now. Scatter them, confuse them, cut this thing off at the knees. Not surprisingly, when I asked my seminar students to reflect in their journals on the question “Did God treat the people of Babel fairly?” they unanimously judged that God did not.

Toward the end of the semester, as we moved into the New Testament for a couple of weeks, the seminar assignment was the Gospel of Luke, the Book of ActsSt_%20Luke%20Shirt%20Logo%20Gold%20Cross[1], and Romans. What, among the vast array of possibilities, to focus on? In preparation it occurred to me, as it occurred independently to several students in seminar, that there is far more than simply a surface level connection between the story of Pentecost in Acts 2 and the Tower of Babel story in Genesis 11. In fact, Pentecost undoes Babel, turns it on its head. Rather than dispersing human beings and confusing their language, at Pentecostpentecost1[1] the divine unites human beings by causing them to understand each other.

I was taught that Pentecost is the “birthday of the church,” but actually I think it signifies something much greater and more important than the start of a church or religion. Pentecost tells us that the divine is neither angry at us nor threatened by us. God wants human beings to cooperate and communicate effectively. Furthermore, our ability to do so is a divine giftActs 2:1-4. When the day of Pentecost came. Pastel & pen. 26 May 2012.. Whenever we overcome the vast differences that separate us, differences too many to count, the divine is present. Whenever human beings connect, not by eliminating differences but rather by finding commonality, enhanced and deepened by our diverse perspectives and experiences, God is there. The divine strategy, culminating in Pentecost, is simple and profound. The distance between God and humanity in Genesis 11 has been eliminated; Pentecost completes the story of the Incarnation—as my friend Marsue says, we all are “God carriers.”

Pentecost also tells us that the divine solution to our failure to understand each other is not conformity, getting everyone on the same page and believing the same thing. Everyone did not miraculously start speaking the same language at Pentecost, as humans did at the start of the Babel story. Each person retained his or her language and was divinely enabled to hear the good news in his or her own tongue.Earthen%20Vessels[1] God met everyone exactly where they were, as the divine continues to do. Because we now “contain this treasure in earthen vessels,” as Paul wrote to the church at Corinth, we can easily be distracted by the various shapes, sizes, designs, and materials of the clay pots. But the divine connects us all. In the words of the ancient Gregorian chant,

Where charity and love is,

God is there.

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Inquiring Minds

Not long ago I had the chance to read a novel by Ian McEwan that I somehow missed when it was published a year and a half ago. The Children Act is the story of Fiona Maye, an experienced and highly respected family court judge in London. The story centers on how a particular case impacts both her professional and personal life. McEwanA seventeen-year-old boy is hospitalized with leukemia; his regimen of treatment requires a cluster of powerful medicines, including one that produces anemia. To combat the anemia a blood transfusion is required—standard procedure. But the boy and his family are Jehovah’s Witnesses, and blood transfusions are prohibited by their religious beliefs. Fiona hears testimony from attorneys representing the interests of the hospital, the young man (three months away from his eighteenth birthday and legal majority), and his parents. In her judgment on the case, Judge Maye writes something that could have been written about me at age seventeen:

His childhood has been an uninterrupted monochrome exposure to a forceful view of the world and he cannot fail to have been conditioned by it.

Just how strongly the religious training and atmosphere of my youth influenced and shaped me was brought to my attention sharply last Sunday as InquirersI spoke with a dozen or so folks (most of them over seventy, I would guess) in an “Inquirers’” class at the small Episcopal church where my friend Marsue is currently the temporary priest. Such classes are preparation for the Episcopalian version of confirmation, capped by a liturgy involving the Bishop at his annual appearance next month. Inquirers class is open to persons who wish to join the church officially, those who wish to renew their original baptismal vows so far removed in the distant past that what the vows say—let alone what they mean—has been forgotten, persons who wish to be “received” into the Episcopal church from other churches in which they were originally confirmed (most often disaffected Catholics), and anyone who is just looking for an hour’s worth of religious entertainment on a given Sunday. Knowing that my own religious upbringing in the Baptist church included brainwashing in the Bible, Marsue asked me if I would come to this particular meeting to talk about “Bible History.”

OT worldNo problem–I’ve done this for her before at a different church, I’m on sabbatical, and I knew that just relying on my fifty-plus year old foundation in things Biblical would be more than sufficient to introduce Episcopalian-wannabes who had probably never encountered Scripture first hand in their life to the Bible lay of the land. At the class I pulled out a book I had brought from home with some relevant maps in it, while Marsue scared up a few Bibles. Directing everyone to the Table of Contents, I table of contentswalked them through the patriarchs, the exodus, the time of the judges, the unified kingdom under David and Solomon, the divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah, Israel’s captivity in Assyria followed by Judah’s captivity in Babylon a century and a half later, capped by the Persian emperor Cyrus’ allowing the Hebrews to return to the devastated Promised Land to rebuild the Temple and their communities—all in under an hour. It was fun to return to the Sunday School lessons of my youth (a Sunday School that was run like a real school—we were expected to learn things, subject to quizzes and exams). It was even more fun to come up for air occasionally and ask for questions. There weren’t many; everyone  was looking at me as if I were a mutant or some sort of trained monkey. I was working without notes—no notes are necessary when plugging into things learned in-depth at a young age. As Aristotle says, if you want people to learn things they won’t forget, get them when they are very young.

After the crash course in Old Testament happenings, Marsue made a few comments that opened the door to broader issues. I had pointed out on the maps that the centerpiece of these historical events—Canaan—is remarkably tiny in the overall scope of things. MonotheismYet in our twenty-first century this part of the world continues to carry extraordinary importance to billions of people both politically and religiously. The three great monotheistic faiths—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—all claim Abraham as their father and this part of the world as the central home of their faith. The violence and bloodshed of the current Middle East mirrors the violence of the Old Testament, just on a larger scale. The Palestinians of today have the same grievance against the still relatively new nation of Israel that the native people of the Promised Land had against the recently freed Hebrews of the Old Testament. We were here first.

When I did this sort of class the first time over a year ago, one of the older members of the group—one of the church’s two current sextons—spoke for the first time as he remembered various conversations with people of different faith commitments over the years. Whether during impromptu discussions with fellow soldiers during basic training or conversations with his next door neighbor, he noted how it has always struck him that people with significant faith differences actually share a great deal in common. ‘one godWhy can’t we simply understand that we can believe in the same God in very different ways?” he wondered. Why all the hatred, the violence, the suspicion and judgmental attitudes?

Her Honor Fiona Maye runs headlong into the same issue as she deliberates her decision in the case of the Jehovah’s Witness teenager. She’s not a religious person herself, but whether religious or not, the Jehovah’s Witness belief that God’s will does not include blood transfusions, even if required to save a life, seems odd, peculiar, and irrational. Such apparently arbitrary rules are cultish—something from which normal persons need to be protected or perhaps rescued. And yet, Fiona realizes, that one person’s cult is another person’s truth.

mountainsReligions, moral systems, her own included, were like peaks in a dense mountain range seen from a great distance, none obviously higher, more important, or truer than another. What was to judge?

Fiona’s position and status requires her to make a judgment, but she realizes that it cannot be on the basis of moral superiority or certainty. For what makes sense and what is true for a person is always largely shaped by that person’s experiences, some of which—especially those of one’s early youth—one does not freely choose.

I remember a number of years ago when my therapist, after listening during yet another session to my descriptions of how the impact of my religious heritage on my adult life had been, in my understanding at that time, largely negative, suggested to me that I might want to trybuddhism Buddhism. If Christianity isn’t working, try something else. But I knew that I couldn’t do it, even if I wanted to. I’ve been working on this for a while now, and I realize more and more that although I have no basis on which to insist that my faith is the best way to package the truth, it is my truth. Each unique expression of faith, viewed from a distance, looks pretty much the same to an objective observer, which is a good thing for all persons of faith to remember as they get ready to go into religious warfare, virtual or actual, on a regular basis. But faith is never lived from a distance. It is inhabited up close. My monochrome exposure to faith as a child may have exploded over time into Technicolor, but the original imprint is still there. It is not mine to impose on anyone else, but it is mine.roses

Sam’s Inn

What would you call a friend who is as unpredictable as the weather, who shows up unexpectedly behind the scenes to arrange things in your favor on occasion but who never seems to be around at crunch time? What is the right word to describe an acquaintance who you are sure can help in difficult situations and never is available, but who also has just the right word or advice when you are least expecting it? Unreliable? A godsend? Disappointing? Big_Bird_-_Library_of_Congress,_Living_Legends,_Award_&_Honors,_2000[1]I just call her Big Bird. Once many years ago, when Jeanne joined my two young sons and I in a new “blended family”—it’s definitely a good thing that one doesn’t know what one getting into when one makes such decisions—she referred to the Holy Spirit as “Big Bird.” It was a brilliant move on her part, locking into the imagination of a six and a nine-year-old accustomed to regular doses of Sesame Street an unforgettable image of the divine. My sons are now in their thirties, and the name my family uses most frequently when referring to “what is greater than ourselves,” specifically the Holy Spirit, still is Big Bird. We have shared the nickname with many friends over the years and it seems just random and strange enough to fit. She was a topic of discussion at lunch the other day.

As the agreed upon time for lunch with our friend Marsue came and went and Marsue did not arrive, I asked Jeanne “should I give her a call?” We were meeting in an unfamiliar part of town at a restaurant none of us had eaten at before—Sams InnSam’s Inn—an establishment chosen on the recommendation of a friend and because it is relatively close to where Marsue was dropping her husband Robin off for a VFW lunch that she was happy to escape by hanging out with Jeanne and me. Answering on the fourth ring, Marsue said she was running late and had just dropped Robin off. As I helped her try to figure out how to get from her current location to the restaurant, she hung up. Oh well, I thought—if she doesn’t show up in ten minutes I’ll call her back and give the phone to the waitress or hostess to provide directions.

Five minutes later, in walked Marsue with a story. When I had been talking with her on the phone, she was buzzing through a school zone at least twenty miles over the posted speed limit trying to make up lost time. She met a town cop coming the other way, he did a U-turn with his lights on, and soon she was sitting on the side of the road with a police officer approaching her window. pulled over“You know why I pulled you over?” he asked; “I know, I’m was going too fast. I’m late meeting friends for lunch at Sam’s Inn, and I’m not sure where it even is. Can you help me out?” Switching quickly from law enforcement to GPS mode, the officer assured her she wasn’t far from the restaurant and gave her directions, ending with “please be careful with your speed—this is a school zone.” He didn’t write her a ticket.

As we caught up on each other’s past few weeks, a common theme emerged—unexpected challenges that have upset our apple carts of plans. My sabbatical so far has been built around getting into the best shape of my life on my new bicycle, so I tip over and break my ankle. Jeanne was “celebrating” one year of unemployment that day; other than a welcome eight weeks of work in August and September, the job applications of a highly qualified and experienced professional have been met with the sound of crickets chirping.Marsue Marsue, a supposedly “retired” Episcopal priest, is trying to figure out what’s next. All three of us are dedicated persons of faith—none of us have a clue as to what God might be thinking. But then there are little incidents like Marsue’s with the policeman—if you’ve been doing this faith thing long enough, you will be able to tick off any number of situations like that. Instances where, out of the blue, something gratuitous reminds you that something bigger is going on.

As if on cue, Jeanne offered another example of divine randomness. We are counting our dollars more carefully than usual because of her unemployment, so when she found an online class on healing that she wanted to take, she wasn’t sure where the $350 course fee was going to come from. Until she remembered that for a while she had been squirreling extra money here and there, including the money she received in cards for her June birthday, in an envelope in the hutch cabinet (she calls it a “breakfront”—a Brooklyn thing, I think). Her remembrance was that there was $325 in the envelope, and obviously we could find the extra $25 somewhere (I could lay off Dunkin’ Donuts for a couple of weeks, for instance). Upon further investigation she discovered that in addition she needed to purchase $35 of text books, pushing the total to $385. So now an extra $60 was needed. Upon checking the envelope, KilianJeanne discovered not the $325 she expected but—you guessed it–$385.

I know, normal human beings are inclined to call such events “chance” or “coincidence.” But the three of us around the table that afternoon at Sam’s Inn have long experience with what the poet Kilian MacDonnell calls “Our preposterous God with a preposterous love.” I noted that this is so typically Big Bird. She can unexpectedly fund an online course perfectly but seems incapable of finding Jeanne suitable employment. She sends Marsue directions to the restaurant by way of a policeman who has stopped her for speeding. She can fill my days and weeks with all sorts of intimations of holiness and yet is too busy to prevent my ankle from being broken when my bicycle harmlessly tips over with me on it. The life of faith I am familiar with has as many What the Fuck?? moments as periods touched by grace. This is a constant reminder that God does not work according to our expectations. I need to learn how, as our rector described in his sermon last Sunday, how to recognize apparently bad news as part of the gospel’s good news, news that seldom reveals itself as we expect. Mary OliverMary Oliver’s poem “I Go Down to the Shore” captures it perfectly.

I go down to the shore in the morning / and depending on the hour the waves / are rolling in or moving out, / and I say, oh, I am miserable, / what shall— / what should I do? And the sea says / in its lovely voice: / Excuse me, I have work to do.

All Creatures Great and Small

Tomorrow is “Blessing of the Animals” Sunday. Two years ago I had the privilege of giving the sermon for Saint Francis Sunday which is the occasion for blessing of the animals. Here’s what I said:

On weekday mornings I try to start the day by reading the Psalms appointed for the morning in the daily lectionary. A couple of days ago on Friday morning as I squinted through bleary, sleep-filled eyes, I was greeted by Psalm 19, my favorite Psalm ever:

The heavens declare the glory of God

And the firmament showeth His handiwork

Day unto day uttereth speech

And night unto night showeth knowledge

There is no speech or language; their voice is not heard

But their sound is gone out into all lands

And their words unto the ends of the world.

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Or so I learned it as a child in the King James Version. Psalm 19 is a celebration of God’s creation, a reminder that we can encounter God’s glory and goodness simply by looking up attentively.

This morning’s Psalm is a similar reminder that the divine is imprinted in creation. t7Ycu[1]Psalm 104 is a beautiful celebration of and tribute to the incredible, out-of-control exuberance expressed by the Creator through the various living things in our world. Wild asses, storks, rock badgers, lions, Leviathan. As Annie Dillard wrote in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, her Pulitzer Prize winning testament to the wonders of the natural world, “Look, in short, at practically anything—the coot’s feet, the mantis’s face, a banana, the human ear—and see that not only did the creator create everything, but he is apt to create anything. He’ll stop at nothing. There is no one standing over evolution with a red pencil to say: ‘Now, that one, there, is absolutely ridiculous, and I won’t have it.’” As I look out at the menagerie of animals, humans included, who are attending church today I see an embodiment of the Psalmist’s final reflection:

When you send forth your spirit, they are created;

and you renew the face of the earth.

May the glory of the Lord endure for ever;

may the Lord rejoice in his works

st_francis-animals[1]It is Saint Francis Sunday; knowing that this is Marsue’s favorite Sunday of the year, I was greatly and pleasantly surprised when she asked me a few weeks ago if I would like to give the sermon today. In preparation, I’ve had an opportunity to think about the animals, past and present, in my life. 500074-R1-040-18A_019Each of you has an animal or two in your life that has changed who you are. In my life there are two such animals. One of them, Frieda, accompanied Jeanne to the lectern to read from Genesis 1 a few moments ago. The other animal who changed my life was my childhood cat. How can an overweight, close-to-obese cat who died almost thirty-five years ago occupy a central place in my history? Allowing for imperfect memory, by my unofficial count I have had at least a dozen cats and dogs as pets since she died, but Stokely is the center of gravity in the menagerie of four-leggers that has intersected with my life. Remembering Stokely connects me with the better parts of my youth—humor, laughter, my father at his best. In a strange way, Stokely also makes me think differently about what God might be up to with us human beings. Not bad for a cat.

Stokely almost didn’t end up in my life at all. In the summer between my sixth and seventh grade years, my family was moving about 40 miles north, from a rural and isolated location to what serves in Vermont as suburbia. One of our two dogs had died during the previous year; our other dog, an elderly collie who was strongly attached to our next door neighbor, was deemed too old to make the move and stayed with the neighbor. Petless for the first time in my life, I asked for a cat. Trudy and Bruce summer or fall of 1979There had never been a cat in my world—I didn’t even know anyone with a cat. But I thought a cat would be cool. My father did not. He also had never had a cat, and my request struck him as another odd, peculiar request from his youngest son who would not hunt, tended to be overly emotional, and just didn’t fit his mold of a typical son. And now he wanted a cat instead of a dog, for God’s sake.

I worked on Dad all summer, and knew I had him when he proposed one of his random, off-the-wall bargains. “We can get a cat if he’s black and if we name him Stokely after Stokely Carmichael.tumblr_m56qax7EIP1r8majk[1]” This was 1967, and the civil rights movement was in full swing. In my father’s peculiar imagination, a black cat named after one of the infamous Black Panthers made sense—why he didn’t propose “H. Rap,” “Eldridge,” “Malcolm,” or even “Dr. King,” I don’t know. “Bruce!” my mother complained. “Good grief,” my brother sighed. “Deal,” I said—we were going to get a cat.

A few weeks later my cousin reported that her co-worker at the local hamburger joint owned a cat that had just produced kittens. The litter had three calicos with various patterns of white, brown, and yellow and Stokely—all black except for a bit of white on his chest. Stokely’s eyes had just opened a few days earlier and he could barely walk. I deposited him in a box with a bag of dry food from my cousin’s friend, jumped in the car and my mother drove us home. Stokely was an attraction in my extended family, none of whom had ever had a cat and none of whom could believe that my Cat_Scruff[1]Dad, the unofficial patriarch of the extended family, had agreed to have one in his house. My aunt picked Stokely up by the scruff of the neck (we had heard that cats like that) and let him hang from her hand—“There’s a problem here!” she announced. “Notice anything missing?” I didn’t, but my brother did—“Stokely’s a girl!”

Not only did Stokely turn out to be a different gender than we had ordered, she turned out not even to be black. 2010_0524aprilmay20100006[1]She was a calico just like her litter mates—what appeared to be solid black was predominantly dark brown, which became more and more flecked with white, cream, and yellow highlights as she grew up. Her toes were colored individually, with a dark brown, light brown, yellow, and white one on each foot in no particular order. My ever observant father said that she looked like she was assembled out of 4jrVS5r[1]spare parts. In her later years she became extraordinarily fat; from her early years she exhibited a personality that matched her appearance. Cats are supposed to be graceful—Stokely was clumsy. Cats are supposed to land on their feet when falling from heights great and small—my brother and I verified by experimentation over and over that Stokely was as likely to fall on her side or even her back as on her feet when dropped from various heights onto my bed. I saw Stokely tumble down the stairs to our front door landing more than once when a too-vigorous post nap stretch unexpectedly dislodged her from her spot in the sun on the top stair. Cats are supposed to be introverts and avoid loud noises, but Stokely would run from anywhere in the house so she could ride on the Hoover while my mother vacuumed the floor.

A couple of years ago, I asked Marsue in an email for some input on a tough decision that I had to make. She responded that “I find it part of God’s playfulness to just put things out there for which we might be put to good use, stand back and watch how we handle what has come our way.” playing-with-cats-16917[1]A playful God who might be entertained and amused by how we handle new situations is non-traditional, to say the least, but I completely understand the dynamic. My father, brother and I took endless delight—to my mother’s dismay—in slightly rearranging Stokely’s world occasionally to see what she would do. A piece of scotch tape on her back foot or ear, depositing her on top of the piano, putting a cat sized coat on her for the first time—always produced gales of laughter as Stokely first gave us a imagesCAR12L79“when are you bastards ever going to grow up?” look, then deliberately addressed the new challenge at hand.

A good thirty-five years after her passing, my crystal clear memories of this obese, made-out-of-spare-parts animal are evidence that she had an impact on me. As I’ve thought about her this week, I’ve become more and more convinced that we are all Stokelys. Although I suspect that most of us would like to believe that we are integrated, focused and sharply defined, we really are little more than random collections of spare parts—most of which are not of our choosing. We do not choose our families, the place and time of our births, our race, our gender, and yet out of these assigned parts—along with those we do have some choice in—we are given the task of constructing a life. And overseeing all of this is something greater than us whose idea of planning and design is apparently something like caution-grunge-wall1[1]“How about if I throw a whole bunch of odds and ends together and see what happens?” Psalm 139 says that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made.” If God takes delight in seeing what we make of the bits and pieces we have been given, perhaps we should as well.

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.”